It’s not hard to understand why Magazine Dreams ended up being one of the most divisive films out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Elijah Bynum’s sophomore effort is relentlessly intense, with an absolute powerhouse performance at its center from Jonathan Majors, and on the positive end the film has garnered critical comparisons to Uncut Gems and Taxi Driver. On the other end, some Sundance critics have lamented the challenge the film presents as exhausting, and perhaps overly familiar to the likes of Taxi Driver. In either instance, Magazine Dreams is a big swing for the fences and a bold character study deserving of attention.
Killian Maddox (Majors) is an amateur bodybuilder, and his obsession with becoming a professional is all-encompassing, negating pretty much any chance of an actual life outside of the sport. He cares for his ailing grandfather and holds down a job as a grocery bagger, but there are no real relationships in Killian’s life. He’s shy and quiet, and the trauma from his past has very clearly impacted his ability to interact with others in a social setting. And the world of bodybuilding only exacerbates Killian’s loneliness, forcing a perennial focus on everything he lacks, his own objectification a required part of the path to glory.
At the outset and for the first half of Magazine Dreams, the truth of Killian’s life is actually fairly straightforward: this is a vicious and unforgiving existence, and Killian’s struggles are due in no small part to the unfairness of the external world. When he loses his temper for the first (but definitely not the last) time, it’s suggested (and later confirmed) that racial bias against Killian and his grandfather was the inciting factor. Perhaps it’s by design that those causal threads get harder and harder to suss out as the film progresses. Killian’s actions are the actions of an overwhelmed, scared, lonely man whose entire life takes place in a pressure-cooker of toxic masculinity. But, yes: some of his struggles are of his own making.
Jonathan Majors gives 110% here as Killian, and the performance alone makes it hard to look away from Magazine Dreams. The character’s biggest, loudest moments could have been grating in the hands of a lesser actor, but Majors manages to keep Killian’s impossible loneliness as a driver every step of the way. His anguish and desperation are always evident, which is one important distinction between Killian and Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle: the latter, as suggested by Scorsese’s film, could really be any of us. Killian is a far more specific character, an outcast forced to the extreme fringe. The performance itself reminded me more of David Oyelowo’s 2015 one-man-show Nightingale, and for long stretches Magazine Dreams could indeed be called a one-man-show.
But with Majors giving a beautiful tour-de-force as such a unique character, why does the film end up feeling so familiar? While the first act felt fresh and never-before-seen, it’s a bit of a letdown when the third act retreads a number of tropes we’ve seen before. Taxi Driver becomes more than just a touchpoint, the references crossing over from implicit to explicit. It becomes a lot harder — maybe impossible — to sympathize with Killian as a shy loner, and while that’s perhaps not the main goal of Magazine Dreams, it still feels like it loses a step along the way. The film cared deeply about Killian at the outset; by the end, I’m not so sure.
Bynum should still be commended for creating a confident film that’s worth discussing, and indeed Dreams makes his future exciting to consider. His Sundance introduction noted that the “blistering” 24-day shoot contributed to the intensity of the film, though I’d be more curious about the writing process. The comparisons to Uncut Gems are fitting to a point, but the Safdie Brothers display a lot more control and finesse in their filmmaking style while still maintaining a hyper-energetic vibe. Tertiary characters in Dreams could’ve been more nuanced, too, although maybe there’s an intentionality there meant to underscore Killian’s inability to forge real relationships.
So your mileage, like the mileage of many a Sundance-goer, will vary. But it can’t be denied that Killian Maddox is a fantastic character, and Majors brings him to life in Bynum’s film in ways you’ve rarely seen in cinema. If the cruel world had eased up for just a moment to allow Killian an opportunity, any opportunity, then things may have turned out a lot differently for him. But in a way, that’s the bittersweet feeling as the credits roll at the end of Magazine Dreams: I wanted to root for Killian more, but the opportunity just never came around.