‘Magazine Dreams’ Review: A Self-Destructive Tale of Tragic Obsession (Sundance 2023)

Throughout the history of cinema, we’ve seen many narratives of obsession and sheer determination to do whatever it takes to become the best, with films such as Black Swan (2010), Whiplash (2014), and Foxcatcher (2014), to name a few. These movies showcase how far off the deep end people can go to achieve glory and recognition. “You’re on the mountain top, looking down on me,” says Killian Maddox (played by an unhinged Jonathan Majors) in write-director Elijah Bynum’s latest film, Magazine Dreams. This line exemplifies his frustration with the system, the impossible standards set by the body-building community, and the society surrounding him, which never gives him a break. Because of this, Killian Maddox becomes a compulsively obsessive, deterministic man who will do anything he can to achieve his dreams. So, not surprisingly, we can now add Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams to this list of films that exemplify the theme of obsession. 

Magazine Dreams is the story of Killian Maddox, an aspiring bodybuilder with dreams of ending up on those famous bodybuilding magazine covers. He obsesses over every detail in his physique, going through grueling training regimens to perfect his body, and aspires to become like his idol, Brad Vanderhorn (Mike O’Hearn). In addition, he is taking care of his sickly veteran grandfather William Lattimore (Harrison Page) while he traverses his day-to-day life as it slowly deteriorates around him. 

It cannot be overstated how amazing Jonathan Majors is in this film; from his physical transformation, which he bulked up tremendously for this role, to the superb range of emotions he carries, it is the role of a lifetime for him. Majors crafted a complex character with severe anger issues, expressed early in the film through voiceovers with his counselor (Harriet Sansom Harris) and by the actions he commits throughout the film to one filled with insecurity and vulnerabilities. This makes his character more than just a hot-head walking cliche. Due to the fractured mentality (and self), we empathize and care for whatever happens to him. And it hurts us even further when we see his rampaging self-destructive behavior come through. It always seems like Maddox is dealt a bad hand, where judges critique his imperfections, such as his deltoids being too small and  that he can’t build more muscle in his legs or how he can’t seem to connect with another human being beyond his blood relatives. 

Everywhere he goes, he sees a society that can’t understand him and no one to talk to about everything that goes through his mind. Early in the film, he finally scores a date with a co-worker, Jessie (Haley Bennett). When they go out to eat, they share niceties and light jokes, and Maddox remembers to smile frequently and act friendly since that’s what he read in an online article on how to become more likable and personable. When he finally starts to open up just a bit by sharing that both his parents are dead because his father shot his mother and then killed himself, that gives you a dark insight into what actually rummages through Maddox’s consciousness constantly. This, in turn, upsets Jessie and essentially spurts the rest of the date as Maddox expresses his determination to become the best bodybuilder so that he can be remembered. Jessie, already very uncomfortable, excuses herself to go to the bathroom and then abandons the date, leaving Maddox alone to eat his dinner. 

He later laments that he doesn’t have anyone to share all these thoughts in his head. You understand that he is broken, that he does make an attempt to fit into society, but he just can’t seem to click. This event, coupled with the isolation he feels, a counselor with whom he can’t express himself, and an idol who ignores his letters, slowly makes him descend into madness and turn him into a ticking time bomb. Elijah Bynum brought a layered character on-screen that doesn’t abide by the tropes and conventions one expects from a narrative such as this. Even from the opening scene, you perceive the inner workings of Killian Maddox by showcasing luxurious shots of Maddox posing for the camera in god-like shots as he flexes his muscles tinted with yellow lights and a power score by Jason Mills. As the score deflates, we see Killian Maddox standing alone in his blue-tinted garage. 

Bynum tackles the topic of obsession, toxicity, and determination pretty well, not giving to the prominent ideals people might have with these topics but also not ignoring the obvious critiques that come with them. Elijah Bynum creates a balance that will leave the audience examining Killian Maddox as a person and drawing their own conclusions about him. Bynum plays a few times with dream-like sequences, which add to the insight into Maddox’s inner workings but also entertains the narrative itself, making you sometimes wonder if what you’re seeing is real or fake. Like Todd Field’s Tár and its approach to cancel culture, Elijah Bynum touches on the susceptible topic of male toxicity in a nuanced way, where it shows you it’s obviously a bad trait and you should try to aspire to be better. Yet, you also get the other perspective – why someone might have gotten to that point. That makes for a much more interesting narrative that can bring forth more dialogue and discourse. 

Seeing a person deteriorate because of their drive to be the best on their field and to see someone who lost control and lost their way in the pursuit of greatness, something that can often be idolized and even mimicked, is heartbreaking to see his story unfold. Jonathan Majors crafted a meticulously complicated toxic lonely deterministic man who will do whatever it takes to be on the cover of a magazine. Magazine Dreams shows us how dreams can be self-destructive, how dreams can ultimately make you lose sight of yourself, and how dreams can someday be your nightmare.

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