Magazine Dreams: Jonathan Majors is Amazing as a Bodybuilder With Demons [Sundance Review]

Magazine Dreams still of Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) gazing downward.

Within moments of the film’s start, it’s easy to see why Jonathan Majors received a standing ovation for Magazine Dreams when it premiered at Sundance Film Festival. Majors is remarkable in the role of Killian Maddox. You feel every sad, painful, and hopeful moment thanks to his performance on top of Elijah Bynum’s sharp directing. Magazine Dreams shatters your heart. But you watch as Killian strives to succeed in the bodybuilding industry while emitting a degree of self-sabotage. 

Killian Maddox’s dream is to be a famous bodybuilder on the cover of magazines, just like his idol, Brad Vanderhorn, who he writes regularly. Focusing on this to the exclusion of all else, Killian lacks social skills. Besides that and work, Killian lives with and cares for his grandfather. Killian follows a regimen of a proper diet, training, and steroids. The latter contributes to the volatile nature of Killian’s emotions. Because of previous violent outbursts, Killian undergoes counseling. Sorrow brims on the surface before seeping back into Killian.

Magazine Dreams Lets First Date Disaster Shows Killian’s Dueling Emotions

Magazine Dreams director, Elijah Bynum.
Elijah Bynum, director of Magazine Dreams, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Each time there’s a hopeful moment in Magazine Dreams, you pray fit works out. Killian goes on a date with Jessie (Haley Bennet), and hopeful music swells. You think now is his chance, and their date starts sweet. Sadly it does not last. Killian discloses how he lost his mother and father, and it is not first-date banter. Once that happens, Jessie’s discomfort is evident, but after ordering food, she tries to push on.  

Cementing the disaster, Killian rants about people looking down on him and how he lost the Grand Prix competition in Dayton, Ohio, in 2016. Here, Bynum’s camera work alters to fit this shift. While in a back and forth, the camera shows both in the shot. As Killian enters a world of his own, softly ranting, the camera closes in on Killian alone. Now scared, Jessie excuses herself to the bathroom and sends the staff at the restaurant to tell him she has left. Killian’s conflicting emotions bring out conflict in the viewer because you see his despair. But you know you’d sneak off if you were on this date too. 

Harms Adds Up Over Time

Killian’s rage is not arbitrary but misplaced more often than not. Racial moments, peppered throughout, show the adverse effects. Killian’s counselor, a white woman, asks if driving six miles for food makes him mad because, for her, it’s unfathomable. But try living in a food desert where limited options beyond junk food exist. Killian browses for meat in the store when a white woman sees him and nonchalantly switches her bag to her other shoulder. Cops shadow him on the street as he jogs. Micro-moments like this can build rage. And let’s not forget the blatant racism with the three white men or the cops. It’s like a reopened cut, never allowed to heal.

The Hopelessness Is Heartbreaking

Magazine Dreams still of Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) gazing downward.
Jonathan Majors appears in Magazine Dreams by Elijah Bynum, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson

Each time opportunities or hope arises, it’s quickly dashed. His encounter with sex worker Pink Coat (Taylour Paige) falls apart as his discomfort rises. From his first date to his competition to go pro to meeting his idol, it’s a neverending chain of disappointments. At some point, the question is how much one person can suffer before they snap. Killian is not evil. Despite moments of anger, he feels deeply. And though strong, Killian restrains himself, amidst his pain, from crossing a line. In some instances, he’s a better person than many in the same circumstances would be. 

Viewers connect with Killian thanks to the phenomenal acting of Jonathan Majors. His weighty performance shows he is a force in the industry. He trained for the character. But it was more than a physical portrayal; Jonathan Majors encompassed the role in every aspect. From each flexed position, to his smile and pained eyes, Majors portrays every moment with range. He allows audiences to see Killian’s personality, adorned in all its multi-faceted, frayed humanity. 

Magazine Dreams could be dreams of magazine covers or weapons to Killian. His desire for people to remember him is familiar. Not everyone wants to be on a magazine cover. But we hope that who we are and how we live matters to someone. Jonathan Majors’s performance in Magazine Dreams is award-winning. I will never forget his role, and neither will you. With two other films coming this year, Jonathan Majors’s status as a powerhouse performer is clear. Magazine Dreams is a painful viewing experience, but essential. Don’t miss out.

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