Sometimes, the Sundance Film Festival mints new directors and stars. However, it can also be the necessary push to get the full attention of someone in the years before their breakthrough. Jonathan Majors is no stranger to the festival after earning raves for The Last Black Man in San Fransisco in 2019. The last few years have seen Majors emerge as one of the most talented performers in the world. His latest film, Magazine Dreams from director Elijah Bynum, only further proves his talent. A monomaniacal performance with stirring visuals, Magazine Dreams is an imperfect vehicle but showcases incredible potential from its talent.
An amateur bodybuilder, Killian Maddox (Majors) believes he can be one of the greats. The young man devotes his life to the sport, attending competitions and posting YouTube clips of his regimen. He writes letters about his life to his favorite bodybuilder, works in a grocery store, and cares for his grandfather (Harrison Page). However, Killian begins taking steroids and other drugs to take his craft to the next level. As he explodes with rage, he begins to endanger those around him.
Much of what makes Magazine Dream a must-watch affair is the power of Majors’ performance. The emerging star brings out Killian’s anxiety and scary intensity with his transformative turn. It’s more than simple physical transformation, though Majors believably bulked up to play a bodybuilder. There’s arrogance, rage, playfulness, and total monomania that plays in every scene. He exhibits extreme selfishness and scares people with his rants. Any success cannot cover up self-hatred and depression. Killian is not a good person, and he wants for connection that he cannot understand or grasp. He reaches for greatness, assuming that it will reward him with love. Instead, he finds cruelty and invites fear.
Very few performances in recent memory feel as transformative, not only physically but throughout his persona. The extraordinary Majors’ disappears into the role, and it’s impossible to imagine many performances in 2023 will eclipse his performance. The screenplay from Bynum never gives Killian any wins and almost goes out of the way to ensure you realize his flaws. The person that Bynum and Majors craft is a horrifying and scary human. Few characters have displayed darkness like this, taking a place next to Eric Roberts’ Paul Snider or Michael Rooker’s Henry.
Bynum adds to the film’s visual palette, creating a phantasmagoric use of color and light to create a fever-dream aesthetic. This forces the audience to question the reality of Magazine Dreams, especially in its second half. This direction takes some of the burdens off of Majors, but it also causes the film to run a bit long. This is especially true for the ending. Frustratingly enough, it also struggles to showcase performers like Taylour Paige and Haley Bennett in what feels like impactful characters. Rather than adding bulk to Majors’ storyline, Magazine Dreams needed to slim down and work with its other performers to reach its peak.
Easily one of the most controversial films of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Magazine Dreams rides the Majors performance to great effect. With a few tweaks, this one could reemerge later in the year as a better film than it is today. However, without these cuts, it’s still a mostly functional, if imperfect, character study of a man on the edge of reason.