Magazine Dreams review – Jonathan Majors is a marvel in bruising bodybuilder drama

It’s not hard to understand why Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) has anger issues. He’s working a low-paid job, living with and caring for his ailing grandfather, enduring micro- and macro-aggressions as a Black man in America and as he explains to a court-appointed therapist in the opening scene, he’s trapped in one of the country’s many food deserts, raging at a system that forces working-class people to eat themselves to death. And then there’s his primary passion …

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Killian is an amateur bodybuilder, pushing his body to extremes in order to do something that he can be remembered by, something to be respected for, a way to separate himself from the trail of violence left behind by his late father. So he lifts and eats and lifts and injects and lifts and competes and lifts and punishes himself in order to ultimately be rewarded.

In writer-director Elijah Bynum’s grim character study Magazine Dreams, Killian is on a path we quickly recognise, that of the angry, socially inept, obsessive loner from films like Taxi Driver and Joker, a contemporised archetype raging his way toward chaos. Killian’s anger at the world around him is only trumped by his thirst to win, to perfect the deltoids that a judge once criticised, to expand the legs that squats just aren’t expanding and to impress his bodybuilding idol and perhaps one day grace the same magazine covers. But he remains his own worst enemy, in need of help he isn’t ready to accept, unable to break free of the shackles of extreme masculinity that have pushed him into toxic cliche. The overfamiliarity of the formula – uncomfortable dinner date: check, public freakout: check, last act firearm purchase: check – is made to be both satisfying and frustrating. Satisfying because Bynum does manage to trace over these beats efficiently, using welcome restraint when things threaten to crash into overload but frustrating because we’ve been here, or somewhere like this, so many times before and we often find ourselves questioning why we’re back here again.

Killian’s obsessive lifestyle – eating 6,000 calories a day, pushing his muscles so hard we fear they’re about to break – is a natural fit for this subgenre, speaking to a specific form of isolation and a dangerous type of addiction that itself hasn’t been explored enough. There’s disordered eating, body dysmorphia and a destructive reliance on steroids that combine to make him a ticking timebomb, backgrounded by news and conversational snippets that show a country that’s broken enough to break anyone. In the wrong hands, this could have been all too overly mannered, the kind of capital A acting challenge that a less careful and more indulgent lead would have made unbearably excessive but Majors manages to make Killian feel painfully real, underpinning his anger with a softness and vulnerability that makes his lurches into mania that much harder for us to stomach. It’s not hard to root for him even in his darkest moments. Majors is an actor whose star is deservedly rising with upcoming villain roles in both Ant-Man 3 and Creed III this spring but his committed, complex work here is so impressive that one hopes he isn’t swallowed by the franchise system too soon, still able to explore characters of more difficulty and specificity. A smart buyer (the film is seeking distribution) could easily steer his performance here toward awards contention.

Bynum, whose previous film was the uneven Timothée Chalamet drama Hot Summer Nights, displays a brash, commercial skill as director, his film looking slick and feeling propulsive (at times it plays like an ambitious audition tape for franchise work) but together with Majors’ exceptional performance, one wishes that this was all being used in service of a story that felt more original, took us to places we hadn’t been so many times before. Killian’s spiral is intense and unpleasant but we’re not left at the end with much other than respect for technique. The film, like Killian, is all muscle.

  • Magazine Dreams premiered at the Sundance film festival and is seeking distribution