Magazine Dreams is a vicious film that will rattle and test the audience’s nerves. The film, which premiered this week at Sundance, stars Jonathan Majors, who brings a welcoming in-depth performance to his character, Killian. For a film focused on bodily perfection, there is nothing pretty about it. And that is entirely the point.
In Magazine Dreams, Killian (Jonathan Majors) is a juicer, and not because he likes Tropicana. He is an intense steroid user. He obsesses over everything fitness and is highly insecure about his deltoids. His love for bodybuilding is so dramatic that it comes up in every conversation. And similar to the song Stan by Eminem, he writes letters obsessively to Brad Vanderhorn (Michael O’Hearn), one of the greatest bodybuilding champions ever to have competed, according to Killian.
It is clear from the beginning Killian is not well. Much like Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Killian lacks the ability to connect with people. At first, he has a soft demeanor, but Killian’s personality can only be handled in small doses. This is demonstrated greatly in a sequence involving a dinner date where the more he talks, the more the color falls from someone’s face.
The only consistency in his life (outside of bodybuilding) is his grandfather (who fought in the war) and a therapist — the latter seems to be a court-ordered relationship.
Killian tells a local business owner who paints houses that if he does not finish the job on his grandfather’s house, he will crack his skull open and drink his brains like soup.
In summary, Killian is one bad day from doing something unimaginable.
A dark and uncomfortable character study
Director and writer Elijah Bynum has crafted one of the most riveting and simultaneously uncomfortable character studies in recent memory. Killian is a tough character to focus on for 2 hours as we journey from extremely awkward conversations with Killian to aggressively violent ones. Something as simple as ordering a meal at a restaurant seems filled with underlying tension and aggression.
Killian desires connection, but his self-absorbed immaturity makes everyone around him exhausted– including the viewer. And yet, one cannot stop watching the self-inflicted car wreck being played out in Killian’s life.
Much like Todd Phillip’s Joker, the movie lives or dies by its lead performance. Joker only works because Joaquin Phoenix elevates the material. This move works because of Majors’ outstanding ability to embrace the role.
Depending on its release strategy, Majors will probably get an Oscar nomination for this movie. He is doing work here that can easily be compared to Robert DeNiro in his younger days. Every scene is commanding and confident. Somehow, his voice even sounds different. It’s a word rarely used by this reviewer, but if there were a time to use the phrase “tour de force,” this is it.
This includes Majors’ commitment to the physicality of becoming Killian. His staggering body change is evidence of the lengths Majors will go through to be recognized as a serious performer.
The bodybuilding scenes are torturous to view. The contests are vulnerable and shallow in their design. Each time Killian flexes a muscle area, the bubbly bulge in each section is visually painful. Almost as if we are experiencing a body horror movie with Killian’s muscles trying to break through his glossy skin.
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw makes excellent use of lighting in all these scenes, emphasizing the shadowy curves of Killian’s physique. There is a wonderful aspect to Arkapaw’s photography involving color. He plays around with colorful lighting here, just like in Macbeth (2015). Here, beautiful shots with blue and orange color temperatures complement each other. Not to mention long continuous tracking shots that hype up the tension when something goes terribly wrong.
The film is about what toxic masculinity does to one’s mental health. There are also undertones of how commercialized beauty standards infect the same issue. However, this movie is about as subtle as a sledgehammer when addressing these thematic elements. The audience must succumb to extremely insane scenarios to inherit a simple point. At times it seems a bit overdone.
A roid-raging nightmare come true
As uncomfortable as it can be, it’s a movie this writer has not stopped thinking about for days following the screening. There is something to be said about this notion that a film can make one squirm, flinch, and even dislike a character. Yet somehow, the story stays in the back of one’s mind. Magazine Dreams is a success for this reason–for better and worse.
Magazine Dreams is a brutal, roid-raging nightmare come true. Between Elijah Bynum’s bold direction and Jonathan Majors’ carnivorous performance, this film will undoubtedly spark conversation.
Majors’ commands the screen with ferocious raw energy. Imagine growing up and watching DeNiro’s rise to fame. That is the experience of witnessing Majors as Killian. Just prepare for the character to make the viewing experience as distressing as humanly possible.
For more Sundance Film Festival Coverage, read our reviews of Kim’s Video, Slow, and Sometimes I Think About Dying. Readers can also check out our list of most anticipated films at the festival.