The Macho Fury of ‘Magazine Dreams,’ Sundance’s Most Divisive Movie – Rolling Stone

By K. Austin Collins

Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams is both too much and not enough. At its center is a role for which star Jonathan Majors has said that he “ate 6,100 calories a day for about four months” to prepare — work that needed to pay off to convince us of its central character, and it does. Majors plays an amateur bodybuilder named Killian Maddox who, at the movie’s start, has already gotten in trouble for his anger and antisocial issues, who is already in counseling for his past misjudgments, and is already displaying the signs of a man worth keeping an eye on. This is a character study. Over the course of two hours, we hew closely to the life and personality of a man who is seemingly predisposed to social failure. Whether that is because of some diagnosable, easily categorized cluster of innate mental health issues or more specifically a product of Killian’s violent past (suffice it to say that he was exposed to violence from a young age) is hard to say. Magazine Dreams is less intent on fixing a clean diagnosis than it is on studying the symptoms, which are dark, sad and unavoidable from the start.

The movie begins and ends as a portrait of a man who is very much alone. Not literally — Killian is the caretaker for his ailing grandfather (Harrison Page), who lives with him in close enough proximity that Killian’s freakouts prove noisy and bothersome. And Killian has routine meetings with a counselor (Harriet Sansom Harris), who asks all of the right questions without being able to save him from himself. This hardly amounts to a social life. The isolation is pointed. Killian’s interactions with others are stilted. In place of friends, he has rituals and obsessions. This is a man with a one-track mind — and that track is full of slights. Some time ago, at a bodybuilding competition, a judge criticized Killian’s deltoids and other parts of his physique. Now, when he works out at home, flexing and self-impressing in front of a full-length mirror, he mumbles to himself about that critique, displaying his delts to an audience of one — himself — to spite a judge who has no doubt moved on by now, with Killian nowhere on his mind. 

Killian Maddox is a man with something to prove. Magazine Dreams is the kind of movie in which you know from the outset that Killian’s interactions with women are going to be especially tortured. He hits on and attracts a cashier from his grocery store named Jessie (Haley Bennett) that goes as awkwardly as imaginable, giving Killian plenty of room to monologue about himself (and his body), his aspirations (to be on the cover of bodybuilding magazines), his routines (eating and working out, all in service of his body). He later has an interaction with a sex worker (played by Taylour Paige) that doesn’t go much better. He grows increasingly angry throughout the film, not because of these interactions, but because of the world in which it feels completely unlikely that they might have gone well. The world doesn’t seem to know what to do with a man like Killian, commonplace though he inescapably is. When we see him at a bodybuilding competition, he goes out of his way to be the most pronouncedly insecure man onstage, with the loudest grunts and most aggrandizing poses. When we see him at home, he’s pumping himself full of steroids and working his body half to death. His room is covered in posters and images of male physiques. We never see him jerk off, but we get a glimpse of his attitude toward sex in quick moments in his bedroom, when we can hear porn on his television as he slurps down his muscle milk. It all rings out with an impending, dreary sense of This isn’t gonna go well.
And it doesn’t. Magazine Dreams tracks Killian’s wavy but steady crescendo toward unforgivable violence — as we can expect that a movie such as this, so rooted in male insecurity, will set out to do. Its drama is anchored in repetition. He works out, and works out, and works out. He writes unanswered letters to his hero, a bodybuilder who was once a runner-up for Mr. Olympia, in a series of voiceover monologues that have inspired comparisons between this movie and the diaristic Taxi Driver, but which, bar for figurative bar, are better described as a softboiled rehash of Eminem’s “Stan” — down to the climactic violence. It all feels so intentionally, unavoidably cyclical. Killian has repeated incidents in which he’s slighted and, unable to let it go, lashes out. Much property damage, and injury to himself, results from this. The hot- and-cold temperatures of the cinematography waver between blue, beauteous loneliness and yellow-hot rage and confusion, just as Killian does. It’s a credit to the movie that this largely works. Even as its ascent into further and further mishap traces a clear arc, the movie isn’t neat about it. It lurches forward like a broken-down vehicle, creating an odd dread as we watch, a suspenseful cloud of wonder as we try to figure out how far Killian will go.

The answer is: pretty far. Far enough. Magazine Dreams doesn’t exactly have anything original in mind, beyond its central performance, which works for Majors in its lonelier, less stable moments and fails, just as the movie fails, when shit hits the fan. Majors nails the part of this movie that depends on Killian being somewhat of a loser. He speaks with a muscle-guy toughness that’s artificial enough for you to see the child in him, always — every sentence out of his mouth sounds like he’s just taken a huge gulp of air and is trying his best to squeeze the words out with just enough control to fend off an explosion. The explosions, when they come, are less overwhelming. The repetition damns the movie, to an extent: It becomes too easy to write Killian’s messes off as temper tantrums, rather than as the more dangerous or vulnerable displays that they might really be.
Maybe we can attribute this to the movie’s ideas. Bynum’s script is in dire need of better ones. Too often, Magazine Dream’s sense of male violence feels only headline-deep — like a topical regurgitation of the obvious, but given a sheen of sensitive artistry anchored in the kind of solid, transformative lead role that can make a movie seem richer than it is. It fails as a character study because the murky inner workings of the character are all manifest, outwardly, in turns and attitudes that you can see from a mile away and are no wiser for being able to predict. It fails as a more political reflection, on the other hand, because its ideas are too under-digested. The images stir up a world that’s curiously beautiful, even if they too often telegraph the patheticness that the script seems to want us to recognize in Killian’s life. 
But the script itself is the problem: it’s too much of a rehearsal of the obvious. Obviousness can be a virtue. The best moment in the movie comes when Killian finally has a confrontation with his hero and their chemistry is immediately, almost humorously homoerotic. The movie had gestured at this already, and even if it hadn’t, it clearly comes to mind in a movie like this. The entire visual domain of bodybuilding, with its emphasis on men looking at, admiring, and emulating the curves and crevices of other men, is already ripe for sniffing out a little closet-queer je ne sais quoi. There’s that wider cultural joke, something of an old saw that often enough proves true: that violent, insular men, or misogynistic men, or homophobic men, or men who’ve otherwise united us in a justifiable sense of fear and wariness, are all guilty of being whatever they hate most — are in fact closer to being the sensitive, soft queers that they claim to despise than they are to whatever masculine ideal they aspire to. 

Any glint of homoeroticism in a movie covering this ground is well at risk of rehashing this idea without stepping back to ask real questions about its persistence. Magazine Dreams is wise, in this moment, to energize the trope with knowing cruelty. Here Killian is, meeting his hero, in a moment that’s painfully childlike and honest. His hero flashes his abs and says, “Wanna touch ‘em?” He looks intently at Killian, who indeed reaches out to touch. Which is when the moment and its aftermath reveal themselves to be something else — something more manipulative. Gone is the question of whether Killian “is gay,” in service of what, in the moment, feels like a more surprising idea: about power and opportunism, about the victimhood that can sculpt a man like Killian as much, if not more, than any tour of duty in the weight room. It isn’t merely about who Killian is or isn’t. It’s about how he can be used. It’s about how much of his psychology is rooted in a naiveness about the world.
This is a high point. What more so define Magazine Dreams are moments that encourage us to do the math but let us down with simple arithmetic. I’m thinking of a stretch in which we see Killian pantomiming shooting people down in a parking lot with a finger gun, only to cut, in the next moment, to a postal worker dropping a box off on his front stoop. Three guesses what’s in the box. It just doesn’t feel right. The tension that cracks the backbone of this movie, muddling the sharpness of its ideas, comes down to an original energy that feels hemmed in by a script that’s only going to ask so much of its audience, to say nothing of itself. 

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That’s a shame when it comes to one issue, in particular. Killian isn’t just an antisocial weirdo. He’s a Black weirdo, obsessive and with more than his share of baggage — in a movie that gently teases at some of the contradictions of this situation without quite figuring out what it’s urging us to see, on that front. Still, meaningful nods to race abound throughout. There’s no avoiding the sight of a woman clutching her purse in Killian’s presence and him apologizing for it — apologizing for merely standing there — and there’s no avoiding the ways that Magazine Dreams frames two groups of white men, one of them a group of cops, as they surround Killian on all sides and overwhelm him with violence. He can’t even go for a run without a cop car up his ass, making a suspect of a man who, in that particular moment, shouldn’t be one. 

There’s something to this. And there’s something to watching Killian blast heavy metal on his way to a date with a white woman, only to notice that a pair of Black women, overhearing his music, are laughing at him. It all gets at feelings about race that complicate and add a little heft to the movie’s more bland, topical approach to masculinity, and to Killian’s sense of the world as a fundamentally unjust place. Magazine Dreams tees itself up to explore this more original ugliness, an intriguing addendum to the usual ritual of pathetic maleness, only to deflate with every chance. Just as it shies away, in the end, from having Killian go too, too far. You can feel the movie straining for nuance. What emerges, instead, is half-baked confusion.
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