Magazine Dreams Review – A Brutal Work that Utilises Jonathan Majors’ Star Power

I’m unsure if anyone has coined the term ‘cinematic determinism’ – a term that could be used to describe a film that speaks to unavoidable tragedy from the moment the protagonist appears on screen. If so, classics like Taxi Driver would be prime examples. In the contemporary film landscape Elijah Bynum’s (Hot Summer Nights) second feature Magazine Dreams would be a prime example. From the moment we meet Killian Maddox (Jonathan Major, in a blistering performance that essentially is the film) we know that nothing is going to go well for him.

Killian is an amateur body builder who is working in a minimum wage job in a supermarket to support his ailing grandfather, William Lattimore (Harrison Page) a Vietnam veteran who raised Killian after the death of his parents. Killian is attending court mandated psychology sessions with Patricia (Harriet Samson Harris) to deal with his anger issues and to ensure that he is an adequate carer for William. Killian does his best to care for his grandfather who feeds ideas to Killian that fester in his unbalanced psyche. Killian is obsession and anger incarnate and his dreams to appear on magazine covers like his idol, Brad Vanderhorn (champion body builder Michael O’Hearn) lead him into a self-destructive spiral that encompasses everything from extreme body dysmorphia to an inability to adequately communicate with anyone around him.

When not writing letters to Brad and signing them as his “Number one fan” Killian is putting his body through a punishing regime that encompasses eating an enormous number of calories, working out until he’s vomiting, and using steroids (steroids being at least one of the factors that won’t reduce his anger). He makes YouTube videos which showcase how he’s not able to even fit in with the bodybuilding world (he’s consistently trolled online). Watching Killian trying to speak to the camera about his regime and failing to get more than two sentences out without making a mistake is cringe and pity inducing. Watching his brief flirtation with fellow supermarket employee, Jessie (Haley Bennett) devolve into a trauma dump that has the kind-hearted woman leaving the date in shock and a measure of fear is equally disturbing.

Killian’s fury is barely contained for a second. He competes in small local competitions, but he never wins. His deltoids are too small, or his legs will never bulk up despite the work he does on them. When he goes on a destructive rampage to “avenge” his grandfather who was shown disrespect by a local hardware store, he not only cuts up his body, crashes his car, but ends up in hospital with the doctors telling him he cannot keep taking steroids because they are causing tumorous growths on his liver and will lead to heart failure. He refuses to have surgery because body builders can’t have scars – an ironic position because Killian is created by mental scars.

Eventually, the family of the hardware store owners track Killian down and beat him to a pulp on the day of a competition. Killian has gone beyond reason and despite his significant injuries still tries to appear on stage. He is living in a delusion, a delusion that has been sold to him by the idea that success as a man is always getting up, always working hard, having the heart of a champion. It’s a lie that comes crashing down on him in a variety of ways, one of which is sexual exploitation by his hero Brad. Another is his self-humiliation with a sex worker (Taylour Paige) who he realises doesn’t “like” him for who he is. His naiveite is devastating.

Bynum looks into the world of a man forged in trauma who can never escape. His interactions with others range from pathetic, deluded, to delivering and receiving outright cruelty. Killian begins by googling “How to make people like you” and progresses to “How to make people remember you” when he realises that he will never be truly liked.

Bynum often over-eggs his own recipe. He makes the same points repeatedly when an economy in scripting would have served the film better. Beyond what Killian is doing to himself we learn he has migraines, tinnitus, hears his mother’s voice. The script made it clear that Killian is disturbed but it keeps layering on different traumas for him to deal with. He is mentally unstable, that is made abundantly clear. He is unable to be reached with Patricia doing her best to get him to seek significant treatment but Killian refusing by living in a fantasy where Jessie is his girlfriend, and he is going to be on the cover of a magazine. It’s miserable stuff that is made more so by his internalised loathing of his blackness and overt racism he faces.

What is undeniable is how Majors elevates every aspect of the film and gives it a sheen that makes one almost ready to forgive its flaws and the messiness of the final act. Magazine Dreams may not win any awards for script or direction – although there is some excellent cinematography by Adam Arkapaw – but Majors’ performance is outstanding and once again proves that he is one of the most accomplished performers of his generation, something that his work in Lovecraft Country, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and The Harder They Fall has already abundantly signalled.

Magazine Dreams is a brutal film. It’s depressing, unrelenting, and unforgiving. Killian says, “You have to do something big and important or nobody will know when you’re dead. They’re going to put me on the cover of a magazine, and everyone will know Killian Maddox was here,” yet he’s reminded by his boss at the supermarket (who fires him) that no-one knows who he is. Killian won’t change history; he won’t save himself. He is in a cycle of violence. No matter where he goes or what he does, there will be someone ‘on the mountain looking down’ on him. At least for the audience the experience of watching Majors perform is a genuine pleasure in a work that offers none for Killian himself.

Director: Elijah Bynum

Cast: Jonathan Majors, Harrison Page, Harriet Sansom Harris

Writer: Elijah Bynum

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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