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Sundance Film Festival Review: ‘Magazine Dreams’ is a Tough Watch with a Jonathan Majors Performance You Can’t Look Away From

Watching someone crumble is a long held tradition of a certain type of character study. What makes Magazine Dreams unique isn’t necessarily the arc of its story, but the character that we’re studying. An amateur bodybuilder struggling for perfection, especially as his life crumbles, is cinematic, especially when done well. While this Sundance Film Festival title has hits and misses, it does more than enough right to hold your interest. The movie lingers in your brain once it ends, mostly for positive reasons.

Magazine Dreams contends with issues of celebrity, race, and much more, while watching a troubled man chase his dream. The more we watch him, as well as admire the committed performance, the better things are. It’s when things dovetail into more of an incel type territory, that’s when there’s trouble. There’s bigger swings, but also bigger misses.

Bodybuilder Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) looks like an adonis on the outside. Competing in amateur showcases, he’s good, if not quite great. Inside, however, is a different story. Living and taking care of his grandfather, he works in a grocery store, where he’s shy to the point of barely being able to talk to the co-worker (Haley Bennett) he likes. Killian is doing his best, but there are troubling signs. He’s been in trouble with the law, but also writes letter after letter to a bodybuilder he idolizes.

Once his life begins to fall apart, it’s a speedy descent, unraveling what little confidence Killian has. When his idol (Michael O’Hearn) connects with him, it’s a temporary lifeline, but that ultimately proves to be even worse for him. At rock bottom, Killian is not only a danger to himself, but to others as well, with potentially tragic consequences.

Jonathan Majors has never been better than he is here. Watching him bodybuilding is almost like a fight sequence, while the struggles for human connection are absolutely heartbreaking. If the movie was a little stronger, he’d be an early contender for a Best Actor nomination. He’s that good. Majors really does grab this cinematic bull by the horns and rides it to the finish line. In addition to Haley Bennett and Michael O’Hearn, neither of which leave a major mark, the cast includes small roles for Harriet Sansom Harris, Taylour Paige, and more.

Filmmaker Elijah Bynum certainly has a calling card here with Magazine Dreams. The first half of the film is largely aces, but in the second half, and especially the third act, it becomes just waiting for a tragedy bomb to go off. Bynum follows his choices to a few interesting places, but he seems distracted by an incel storyline, when the narrative didn’t really need to have you thinking about it. He cast Majors though, and that’s about as good a choice as you can make. Even with a bloated runniing time, you can’t take your eyes off of the performance, as well as the character they’ve created.

Magazine Dreams is flawed, but it has an ace up its sleeve with Majors. He’s so good that his performance alone makes the flick worth seeing. Bynum’s ambition doesn’t hurt, either. Even with its issues, this is likely to end up one of the most discussed Sundance titles this year. Once it comes your way, it’s worth checking out, if only to watch Majors in action.

SCORE: ★★★


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Written by Joey Magidson

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