This review is part of our coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) wants one thing, and one thing only: To be remembered. Following in the footsteps of his idols (including one he writes to regularly, played by four-time Mr. Universe Michael O’Hearn), he’s committed himself to bodybuilding, shoving down 6,000 calories of chicken breast and pumping iron morning, noon, and night.
He practices his poses in front of cameras, molds his physique to near perfection, rips through steroids like they’re Diet Cokes. He chugs protein shakes while watching porn, but doesn’t masturbate — whether that’s due to steroid-induced impotence or some unstated facets of his sexuality, we don’t yet know. He competes in amateur bodybuilding competitions, but judges always find one muscle group or another to criticize, which he then attacks with desperate, singular vigor.
Even when we first meet him in Elijah Bynum‘s sophomore feature (the first was the Timothee Chalamet-starring Hot Summer Nights), Killian’s already a man on the brink. He’s shy, withdrawn, but prone to violent fits and is already under the supervision of a concerned therapist (Harriet Sansom Harris). He has no friends, and his grocery store coworkers (save for one nice girl, played by Haley Bennett) and customers look right through him. All he has, all he can control, is his body. And even that is reaching its limits, which will send him spiraling down darker and darker paths.
Playing in the Majors: Cinematic studies in obsession and ambition are nothing new. Save for the bodybuilding angle, there’s a lot in Magazine Dreams that’ll look familiar to folks who’ve seen everything from Whiplash to Pumping Iron, character studies about people who commit themselves to a singular goal as a way of being remembered, no matter the cost in every other area of their lives.
Bynum’s feature exists comfortably within this territory, but it’s more all-encompassing than that: Bodybuilding is our entry point, but through that lens we’re treated to a study in isolation, radicalization, and the slow chipping away of a man’s soul through the masculine codes that strip away his support systems. Killian’s room is painted with bodybuilding posters, aspirational portraits of impossible physique that it’s difficult, if not deeply unhealthy, to realize. And yet, this is precisely what he’s going to do, even as steroids rip through his liver and a lifetime of frustrations turn his brain into a maladjusted soup.
On top of all that, Killian’s Blackness is tackled head-on, albeit in a way that makes it feel like just one more log added to the funeral pyre of his psyche. The bigger (and, thanks to his ‘roids, the angrier) he gets, the more his Blackness becomes a liability. White customers glare at him at the grocery store, irate contractors beat him and call him an “ape,” and incidents with the police go as violently as you could imagine.