The opening shots of writer-director Elijah Bynum’s sassy new feature Magazine Dreams, which marked its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, begin to fade out and show a ripped bodybuilder taking center stage. The lights from the chandeliers are focused on him, as he stays a little longer, head down. This is a dream, as we will soon realize, that will become his worst nightmare. (Read also: Shayda film review: a powerful semi-autobiographical debut for director Noora Niasari)
Jonathan Majors plays Killian Maddox, a bodybuilder whose only ambition in life is to achieve something that will earn him some kind of legacy. He wants to be remembered. For him, that can happen through an article in a fitness magazine. For that he trains day and night, follows a strict diet, avoids any kind of junk food, injects steroids and participates in bodybuilding competitions. Yet there is a deep despair in Killian that prevents him from facing the world. The more you want him to work things out for himself, the more the world turns against him. He also undergoes court-mandated sessions with a therapist (Harriet Sansom Harris) who tells us the problem is lurking behind the door. Maddox is his own enemy.
Meanwhile, he works at the local supermarket where he musters up the courage to ask his friendly colleague (a scene-stealing Haley Bennett) out on a date. Their awkward conversation at the inn seems like the first time he can get away from himself for a while, until he tells her how his father shot himself after killing his mother. Now he lives with his Vietnam War grandfather, whom he affectionately calls “Paw-Paw.” The scene plays out in tight close-up — Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is incredible — and by the time he’s done digging into his obsession with bodybuilding, she’s gone out the back door.
Magazine Dreams is an excruciating character study, and will definitely remind you of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Killian Maddox is in many ways a volcanic mix of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull. Yet Killian Maddox is very much his own pumped up anti-hero – the dire reality of being a black man in today’s society is clear to him in daylight, just as he is aware of his deteriorating mental health. He is a man with a tragic past, an unemployed present and an uncertain future. And the more you want him to get it right, the more he tumbles into an unhinged abyss of despair. He doesn’t want any scars on his body, he tells the doctor halfway through the diagnosis. His deepest scars are enough. A later scene where he finally confronts the aging old judge who had once criticized his deltoids is telling in its vengeful ode to those inner scars.
Bynum, who also wrote Magazine Dreams, conjures up an excruciatingly intense character study that is almost unbearably difficult to watch at times. More than the violence, it’s the anticipation that drives the story, as Maddox’s obsession completely overtakes him. The final 20 minutes in particular become painful to sit through as Bynum challenges the audience to move from his side. It all works thanks to Jonathan Majors, who gives the role of his life as Killian Maddox. Just when you start to wrap your head around the extreme physical dedication Majors bring to this role – he trained for four months and ate over 6,000 calories a day, he amazes with his acute emotional transparency. There is not a single note he misses in this selfless, miraculous transformation. Bravo.