The opening shots of writer-director Elijah Bynum’s brutal new feature film Magazine Dreams , which marked its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, show a ripped bodybuilder taking center stage. The lights of the chandelier are on him, as he stays for a while, keeping his head down. It is a dream, as we will soon realize, that will become his greatest nightmare. (Also read this: Sheeda Film Review: A powerful semi-autobiographical debut for director Nora Nyasari)
Jonathan Majors plays Killian Maddox, a bodybuilder whose only ambition in life is to achieve something that will give him some sort of legacy. He wants to remember. For him, it could be from a feature in a fitness magazine. For this he trains day and night, maintains a strict diet, avoids any kind of junk food, injects steroids and participates in bodybuilding competitions. Yet Kalyan has a depth of despair that prevents him from facing the world. The more you want him to figure things out for himself, the more the world turns against him. He’s also going through a court-ordered session with a therapist (Harriet Sansom-Harris) who tells us that trouble lurks just behind the door. Maddox is his own enemy.
Meanwhile he works at the local supermarket where he dares to ask his friendly co-worker (a scene-stealing Haley Bennett) on a date. Their awkward exchange at the inn seems to be the first time he’s been able to get away from himself for a while, until he reveals to her that his father killed his mother. How did he shoot himself? He now lives with his Vietnam War veteran grandfather whom he affectionately calls ‘Paw-Paw’. The scene plays out in tight close-up—Adam Arkapao’s cinematography is incredible—and by the time he digs into his bodybuilding obsession, she’s gone through the back door.
Magazine Dreams is an interesting character study, and will definitely remind you of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Killian Maddox is in many ways a fiery mix of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta. Yet Killian Maddox is very much his own pumped-up anti-hero – the harsh realities of being black in today’s society are as clear as day to him, as much as he’s aware of his deteriorating mental health. He is a man with a tragic past, unemployed present and an uncertain future. And the more you want him to fix it, the more he sinks into an unbridgeable abyss of despair. He doesn’t want scars on his body, he tells the doctor during the diagnosis itself. The marks inside it are enough. A later scene when he finally confronts the old judge who once criticized his deltoids – he’s telling those internal scars in his vengeful way.
Bynum, who also wrote Magazine Dreams, has created an intense character study that is sometimes unbearably difficult to watch. More than the violence, it’s the anticipation that powers the narrative, as Maddox’s obsession takes over. The final 20 minutes in particular become excruciating to sit through—as Bynum dares the audience to leave. It all works because of Jonathan Majors, who delivers the performance of a lifetime as Killian Maddox. Just as one begins to wrap one’s head around the extreme physical commitment Majors brings to the role—he trained for four months, eating 6,000 calories a day—one is struck by his intense emotional transparency. . There is not a single note he misses in this selfless, miraculous transformation. Bravo