‘Magazine Dreams’ is an Enigmatic and Dark Star Vehicle for an Incendiary Jonathan Majors

Elijah Bynum's Sundance breakout 'Magazine Dreams' laser-focuses on star Jonathan Majors, whose incel bodybuilder character is cracking at the seams.
Magazine Dreams Sundance

This article is part of our 2023 Sundance Film Festival coverage. Follow along as we check out the films and filmmakers appearing at the first fest of the new year. In this entry, Lex Briscuso reviews Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams.

When the golden stage light first hits the chiseled frame of Jonathan Majors’ Killian Maddox in Magazine Dreams, there’s a sense that we’re looking at a god-like figure. Someone without flaws, someone who has graced us with their presence. But the truth is, the lead character of writer-director Elijah Bynum’s 2023 Sundance competition entry is just like one of us, and despite his expertly crafted body, what matters most to him is the fire burning for love inside of him; In fact, it is what makes him intrinsically human at the core of his flaws. The film is anchored by a sublime and terrifyingly contained performance from Majors, a skilled performer who has had his nose to the grindstone with meaty, complex roles since sliding onto the scene in 2017. But Magazine Dreams is undoubtedly his breakout role, the film that will force audiences to see Majors for the blood-sweat-and-tears craftsman that he so clearly is. And further still, there really isn’t a better film to give him this platform, as the movie’s introspection and interrogations not only challenge universal concepts of fame and loneliness but also the culmination of Black bodies being objectified in today’s culture.  

The film follows Maddox, a maladjusted and socially awkward young man, as he works toward his goal of becoming a champion bodybuilder. He already has the physique for it but still isn’t finding the success and the stardom he so desperately craves. When he’s not competing, he works at a local supermarket, where a crush forms on a fellow employee (Haley Bennett) whom he has a hard time connecting with. At home, he cares for his ailing grandfather (Harrison Page), who raised him since childhood—and all the while, he obsessively writes to his idol, a world-class bodybuilder who has the fame and fortune he desperately craves, which eventually becomes too much for the troubled perfectionist to bare and gives way to a clash of violent impulses. 

Majors’ performance is the stand-out factor of this piece. It’s what ties the entire project together, making it work in the places it otherwise would have a hard time standing on its own. As the film made waves at Sundance, stories started coming out about his preparations for the role, which were—to the surprise of probably no one—grueling and fiercely dedicated. Majors disappears inside Maddox, assuming his frustration, his glory, his ideology, and his internal ugliness before swallowing it whole and spitting it back out into the face of the audience. There are so many incredible leading performances throughout history, but none have been quite as intoxicating as Majors’ turn in this film. It’s sure to be one of the best performances of the year, and when the movie gets a wider release, that stance will be cemented by a wider public opinion. There’s simply no doubt that this is Majors’ first tour-de-force role, and the way he weaves nuance with his character’s emotional deterioration will live in infamy for a long time. 

Accompanying Maddox’s systemic breakdown is one of the most haunting scores in a film in a long time. The pitch-perfect music by Jason Hill connects the intensity of idolatry and the crushing weight of perfection and loneliness combined. It’s a masterful, insidiously listenable score that feels both totally sinister and achingly beautiful in the same stroke, making it a worthwhile accompaniment to Maddox’s spiral downward into controlled chaos throughout the film. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s work is also atmospheric in all the right ways for the tone of this piece. He took the regal, heightened feel of his work on The King and the dark, shadowy undertones of his work on the first season of True Detective and meshed the visual approaches for this work. Add in a sense of the divine—evidenced in the way Arkawpaw’s camera caresses every curve of muscle on Maddox’s body—and you’ve got a stunning film you can’t help but watch based on the beauty of the shots. 

The story of Magazine Dreams certainly veers into the territory of Taxi Driver and Whiplash, as you’ve probably already heard. There’s no denying Bynum’s story is inspired but modernized as it takes on a fully-fledged incel stain through Maddox’s inability to connect with others around him, particularly the girl he wants to date. The worldbuilding of Maddox’s character is a major strength of the piece, where every strange choice he makes feels embedded within the DNA of who he is. His inability to figure out how to break down the seemingly invisible walls around him that keep him from the connections that could save him 

The film also calls into question the commodification of Black bodies throughout history and within the culture. And how Black people, particularly in America, are required to be one hundred and ten percent better than their peers in order to get even a modicum of the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Maddox can only push himself so hard and so far, and sooner or later, that effort causes him to split, crack, and break entirely. He can never achieve the stardom of his idol, a seemingly perfect white athlete who feels untouchable to Maddox, even more so when he never responds to Maddox’s letters. These disconnects bleed into the psyche of the audience as they do into the psyche of the character, and before long, a bubble bursts, and it isn’t pretty—but through the real-life horrors, there are major talents to watch in Majors and Bynum. 

Follow all of our Sundance Film Festival coverage here.

Lex Briscuso: Lex Briscuso is an entertainment and culture writer, critic, and radio host living in Brooklyn. In addition to writing news and criticism for /Film, she is the head of social media at Dread Central, Dread Presents, and Epic Pictures Group, and contributes criticism at Paste Magazine. You can find her bylines at The Guardian, Fangoria, Vulture, Roger Ebert, EUPHORIA., Dread Central, and Shudder's The Bite, and her horror and genre radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays at 5pm ET on independent internet station KPISSFM.