SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Now here’s an absolute knockout. Writer-director Elijah Bynum’s sophomore feature Magazine Dreams may be one of the most enthralling films this year, with a central performance that will be hard to beat come award season. The story of an outcast futilely pursuing the American Dream may be familiar, but the way Bynum and his lead tell it is guaranteed to mesmerize.
Prone to violent fits, Killian (Jonathan Majors) harbors dreams of becoming a world-renowned bodybuilder. His room is covered in posters of bodybuilders, his idols. He writes letters to his biggest hero, claiming to be his number-one fan. His workout regimen is brutal, involving an inordinate amount of steroid injections. He watches a lot of porn and his day job at the supermarket involves bagging groceries.
More importantly, Killian has to prove to the authorities that he can keep his aggression at bay by taking care of his ailing grandfather. He sees a psychiatrist (Harriet Sansom Harris) to report on his mental progress. A doctor declares that Killian’s steroid use has led to several tumors on his liver that need to be removed. “No surgery,” our hero says. “I can’t have a scar. I’m a bodybuilder. Bodybuilders can’t have scars.” He soon meets Jessie (Haley Bennett), a potential salvation from his masochistic pursuit of a nigh-unachievable goal.
“…Killian has to prove to the authorities that he can keep his aggression at bay by taking care of his ailing grandfather.”
The less said about their disastrous date, the better. Major’s passionate delivery, coupled with Bennett’s increasingly bewildered reaction, demand to be seen, as does the rest of the narrative, which follows Killian as his life rapidly slides off the rails. Majors, sporting the physique of a Greek god, has never been more vulnerable or multifaceted. “Afraid of [his] own thoughts,” Killian is socially awkward, deeply intense, and shy. Magazine Dreams‘ depiction of his descent into oblivion is as horrifying as it is captivating.
Perhaps the searing sequence wherein Killian gets beaten to a pulp up by a bunch of racists, then still makes it in time for an important show, best exemplifies this. But then there’s his encounter with a hooker, or with one of his foes at a diner (which in itself leads to a brutal confrontation with the cops), or with his hero (never meet your idols, they say), or the consequent strategizing with a semi-automatic weapon. Killian sitting in his car in a parking lot, pretending to shoot folks with his finger, might be the most chilling sight I’ve seen so far at the movies this year.
Bynum deals with obsession – with an image, with celebrity, with yourself, with an ideal. He explores the “no pain, no gain” mentality, as well as studying disillusionment. Magazine Dreams functions as a powerful metaphor for the Black man being judged by the white man from “up on the mountaintop.” It is an intimate, somber, uncompromising cinematic portrait of a desperate soul in the vein of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, if it were cross-bred with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The film will haunt you long after the lights fade. Bynum and Majors deserve major plaudits. The main character’s dreams may remain in his head, but these two have certainly climbed that mountaintop.
Magazine Dreams screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
"…one of the most enthralling films this year..."