​Sundance 2023: 'Magazine Dreams' Is a Delicate Depiction of Brutality

Directed by Elijah Bynum

Starring Jonathan Majors, Haley Bennett, Taylour Paige, Mike O'Hearn, Harrison Page, Harriet Sansom Harris

Photo: Glen Wilson

BY Rachel HoPublished Jan 31, 2023

There's a lot to unwrap in Elijah Bynum's Magazine Dreams. The exploration and unravelling of extreme masculinity through an amateur bodybuilder who displays a distinct lack of social skills is intense to say the least. 

Jonathan Majors plays Killian Maddox, who works part-time at a grocery store, attends court-mandated therapy sessions and competes in local bodybuilding meets. Killian is socially inept, unable to identify cues and lacks the ability to sympathize with the emotions of others. His obsession with bodybuilding has made him a consistent user of steroids resulting in angry and, at times, violent outbursts at the slightest provocation. 

It's not to say nothing happens in Magazine Dreams — quite a bit does. We see Killian attempt to date his co-worker Jessie (Haley Bennett), fanatically correspond with his bodybuilding hero Brad Vanderhorn (Mike O'Hearn) to no avail, and help his grandfather (Harrison Page) with errands. The film, though, acts more as a slice of Killian's life than a focus on a couple major events, which allows for a deep (and often disturbing) character study of a troubled young man.

Also written by Bynum, Killian Maddox is a complex character that is brought to life in the most visceral, terrifying and upsetting way by Majors. There are a number of scenes that show the layered, brutal and delicate nature of Majors's performance — but the one that left me unsettled the most was the first time we see Killian competing. From his preparation in the washroom mirror as he tries on different smiles to his increasing agitation with his fellow bodybuilders, the entire sequence is a showcase in how to make a character deeply upsetting, disturbing and sympathetic.

Aiding Majors's performance is a stellar supporting cast. In a role with minimal dialogue, Bennett is captivating as the uncomfortable and strong-willed Jessie, using the most effective "face acting" I've seen in a long while. Similarly, Harriet Sansom Harris delivers an affecting performance in a small role as Killian's therapist, with subtle movements and tonal shifts that elevate their few scenes within a bigger story. 

Magazine Dreams is a grower. When the movie finished, I wasn't quite sure how I felt about it, other than being stunned by Majors; there was something distinct, yet inexplicable, missing from the film that made it appear a bit flat. But in the days that have passed, Magazine Dreams has persisted in my mind, and whatever was absent has been outweighed by a powerhouse performance and an earned distressing vibe.
(Tall Street)

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