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Magazine Dreams Review: A Beautiful Nightmare

  • Captivating performance from Jonathan Majors
  • Commentary on masculinity
  • Unrelentingly brutal to watch

In a world where the best indicator that an actor has made it is by booking a role in a Marvel film, and any Marvel film requires an actor to contort their torso until it resembles an inverted dorito, it makes sense that body image would become one more way in which toxic masculinity asserts itself. "Magazine Dreams," which premiered at Sundance Film Festival, is a brutal, unrelenting view of a man determined to achieve his goal of becoming a professional bodybuilder, but every action he takes leads him into a darker place. With a stunningly committed performance from Jonathan Majors, who puts his body on the line and imbues every scene with deeply unsettling energy, "Magazine Dreams" is incredibly difficult to watch — sometimes in a good way, and sometimes not.

Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) has made bodybuilding his entire life. His bedroom at the home he shares with his ailing grandfather is filled with the rippling, posed physiques of his heroes. He spends countless hours of the day working out, taking steroids, recording bodybuilding tutorials on Youtube, entering amateur competitions, and writing letters to a famous bodybuilder, who he regards almost as an idol. Killian's single-minded determination crossed into an obsession a long time ago, and he spends the entire film taut like the string of a guitar, ready to snap. He has an almost endless propensity for self-sabotage, largely because he doesn't seem to realize that the things he thinks will make him desirable — loved, even — are the exact things that will ruin his life.

Pain and toxic masculinity

In his quest to achieve the perfect body, he commits himself to a punishing diet and workout regime. When he meets a girl at his local grocery store, where he has a day job, she is interested in him enough to go out to dinner — only to be scared off by his enthusiasm for the sport, as he embarks on an agitated ramble that presents him as unhinged while simultaneously insulting her for the crime of not knowing anything about bodybuilding. The strength that he has cultivated, far from earning him admiring gazes, makes him appear threatening; the steroids which help his muscle development also make him angry and aggressive, which gets him into trouble over and over again over the course of the film.

Killian's entire life is defined by pain — you can see it in the grimace he wears in bodybuilding competitions, even though this is supposedly the thing that he loves more than anything else in the world. He wants desperately for people to like him, to be impressed by him. He wants to hear that a sex worker finds his body appealing, and he lets a comment from a judge about his deltoids not being big enough eat away at his insides. His fear of failure and not being good enough — and worse, being disrespected — leads him to disaster at every turn. Throughout the entire film, he's desperately searching for the answer to a question that nothing he does ever seems to solve: What does it mean to be a man, and how can he prove himself? If he looks like the paragon of masculinity, rippling muscles straight off the cover of Men's Health, why can't that help him get the things that he wants, that he feels he deserves?

A powerhouse performance from Jonathan Majors

There are shades of a 1970s anti-hero in Killian. His rage, isolation, and warped sense of masculinity feel similar to Travis Bickle from "Taxi Driver." But you get the feeling that "Magazine Dreams" doesn't have the stomach to fully commit to this violent figure, and the film suffers for this. It's brutal, relentlessly so, and incredibly difficult to watch, but it's never willing to really pull the trigger. Perhaps part of this is, ironically, a testament to Jonathan Majors' incredible performance. He can't help but draw the audience's empathy even as we watch his character sink into darkness. As we watch the events of "Magazine Dreams" unfold, his exploits are uncomfortable to audiences, and those who experience second-hand embarrassment will likely die of cringe well before the halfway point of the film. But no matter what he does, he never becomes repulsive, just more pitiable and tragic. We see him tear himself to shreds, ruin his personal relationships, sabotage his professional prospects, and even offer up his body in an effort to connect with his bodybuilding hero. The film might be easier to watch if we felt for him less.

Whether this is an asset or detriment to the film is difficult to say. What is clear, however, is that "Magazine Dreams" will serve as a calling card for Majors' irrepressible talent, and one of 2023's defining performances. He pours his entire soul into the role of Killian, full of wounded pain and primal rage with no outlet. As a film, "Magazine Dreams" can be downright unpleasant. But as a commentary on toxic masculinity, and the lengths to which men are encouraged to go to capture to represent the masculine ideal, it is a masterwork.

Theatrical release plans for "Magazine Dreams" have not yet been announced.