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.
The films of the Safdie Brothers tend to share a few recognizable qualities. Most apparent is the kinetic, stressful energy with which each of their films unfolds, a ride that weaves unexpectedly while continuously approaching a breakneck speed. Those weaves are almost always a result of character decisions, though, and I respect that the Brothers keep memorable figures at the fore through even their most plot-twisty jaunts. They seem drawn to slightly-delusional protagonists, too, if not fully-delusional, and so the common logline usually follows a familiar trajectory: Main Character makes increasingly dumb decisions and pays for it. And then there’s the street-level realism, from the single-parent struggles of Daddy Longlegs to the exploration of addiction in Heaven Knows What to the petty life of crime in Good Time.
So why does Uncut Gems feel so different? Increased production value, sure, and an increased profile to match. Before Gems the Safdies weren’t household names unless you caught Good Time, which most probably saw for Robert Pattinson more so than the directors. And of course Gems not only has the excitement of Sandler returning to a dramatic role, but also his most remarkable performance ever (fight me!) as Howard Ratner. These things alone set this particular Safdie outing apart.