Magazine Dreams

Sundance 2023: Magazine Dreams Review

Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) has spent years sculpting his chiseled body into a form he believes will make him a star in the bodybuilding world. Aspiring to one day be on the cover of the magazine like his idol Brad Vanderhorn (played by four-time Mr. Universe Michael O’Hearn), he acts like his body is a precious temple, but it is actually a prison. Like a glistening statute whose hollow core is rapidly filling with toxic mould, there is a sickness in him he doesn’t know how to cure.

In Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams, this illness takes on many forms. It comes in the rage induced by Killian injecting steroids into his body, despite the deteriorating effects it has on his internal organs, and in his inability to make meaningful human connections. The latter is the pond where Bynum’s film spends most of its time fishing. By trying to reel in the various fragments that make men like Killian resent the world, and often express their frustration via mass violence, Magazine Dreams is a film with a lot to say.

From the outset the audience is told that Killian has anger issues and, due to a previous incident, might lose the ability to care for his ailing grandfather if he does not get it under control. When not tending to his elderly father figure, Killian spends most of his time practicing his competition poses, lifting weights, and watching porn while drinking protein shakes. Aside from his bodybuilder competitions and a part-time gig at a grocery store, Killian lives a relatively isolated life. He is desperate for attention and love but does not know how to go about getting it.

Lacking the skills to detect the basic societal niceties that govern everyday life, he struggles to navigate the world and control his rage. This impacts everything from an extremely cringeworthy date with a cashier (Haley Bennett) he has long had a crush on to an altercation with a hardware store owner that has violent ramifications. Even when attempting to have an encounter with a local sex worker (Taylour Paige), Killian cannot escape his thoughts and insecurities.

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He is a man trapped in his own head expecting society at large to hold the key that will free him. Killian blames the world for all the hardships he has to endure. Everything from the judges who critique his body at competition to the trauma of the past to those who do not understand his perceived greatness are viewed with equal distain.

The further down the tortured rabbit hole the film ventures, the more Magazine Dreams alludes to many of the tragic events that have been caused by men like Killian. As he increasingly flirts with the idea of committing a mass shooting—one sequence chillingly brings to mind the 2016’s Pulse nightclub shooting—Bynum’s film ponders our society’s obsession with fame.

Men like Killian are so desperate for someone to notice them that they misconstrue infamy as meaningful attention.

The desire for connection is apparent in the various letters, reminiscent in tone to the ones in Eminem’s hit song “Stan,” he writes to Brad. Each one is another chapter in the fantasy of friendship he forms in his mind. In touching on the numerous factors—including repressed desire, the oversaturation of fear-based media, the shifting face of masculinity and more—that have been blamed for the injection of a wave of toxicity into the veins of a generation of men, Magazine Dreams occasionally feels as confused as its protagonist. Bynum clearly wants to provide a broad understanding of the factors that feed into modern Incel culture. However, in charting the misanthropy, self-pity and sense of entitlement forming in Killian, Magazine Dreams does not always seem concerned in delving into many of the topics it raises.

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A perfect example of this is the topic of race, which is touched on throughout. By having a Black protagonist, Magazine Dreams’ reminds viewers that Incel culture is not strictly a white male thing, even if they statistically dominate with respect to demographics. However, Killian’s Blackness and size is portrayed as both a threat and something that is docile. He is aware that the presence of police pose a danger, but is oddly calm around a drug snorting bar patron who only lists Blacks and Muslims among the litany of things that have ruined the world.

Similar to the notion of racism, there are a wealth of narrative strands here that each could have been weaved into their own unique and enriching quilts. However, whenever one thinks the film is about to really explore a point raised, Bynum pivots to another theme. This causes Magazine Dreams to feel uneven, and overly long due the multiple endings it flirts with.

While Magazine Dreams gets tangled in its own complicated shoelaces, what keeps the crux of Bynum’s messaging standing is the phenomenal performance by Jonathan Majors. One of the most consistently riveting actors of this generation, Majors is a revelation here. Despite the obvious physicality he brings to the role, it is the scenes of quiet intensity that resonate. Through Majors, the film really hits home that men like Killian lack emotional education. In obsessively striving for the image of hypermasculinity that is prominent on the Vanderhorn posters that cover every inch of Killian’s bedroom walls, his failure to obtain that which is unattainable feels even more pronounced and devastating.

Thanks to Majors sensational turn, Magazine Dreams is able to navigate the rocky road it travels. The film may not move from pose to pose as smoothly as it could have, but it makes it clear that there is a generation of men in desperate need of someone to talk to.

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Magazine Dreams is screening as part of Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Head here for more of our coverage from Sundance 2023.



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