People will go to incredible lengths to be perceived as beautiful. What that looks like is different by culture and by gender, and celebrities often embody the worst ideals, which then encourage devoted fans to mimic them in their own lives. There are diets and workout programs that promise participants supposedly healthy and fit bodies but are considerably more toxic and destructive than indicated. Magazine Dreams showcases the dangerous end of the spectrum with one man set on becoming the ultimate bodybuilder, no matter the cost.
Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) has his room adorned from floor to ceiling with posters of bodybuilders, and writes regularly to his idol, Brad Vanderhorn. Maddox eats 6000 calories a day and works out incessantly, training for competitions with the hope of becoming a champion. His only true friend is his grandfather (Harrison Page), who lives with him and appreciates what he does to take care of him. But in the real world, Maddox can’t quite function, letting his anger get the best of him and exhibiting such a one-track mind that he alienates anyone else who might get close to him.
Magazine Dreams establishes from its first moments the obsession Maddox has with being the best and with not giving up, and that alone might be reason enough to be concerned about him as a protagonist. When he builds up the courage to ask out his supermarket coworker Jessie (Haley Bennett), he initially enchants her but then freaks her out when he orders four main courses for dinner and goes on about his regimen without asking her a single question. Maddox doesn’t know how to act in the world, and because no one has paid much attention to him, he’s gotten through several decades of life without anyone noticing that he’s really not doing well.
There are many red flags about Maddox that could easily translate into this film being problematic for its possibility to inspire copycats, but the way in which it presents his state should be off-putting enough to any viewers to dissuade them from following in any of his footsteps. He dwells on moments like the one where a competition judge criticized his deltoids, and has as a result put in considerable time to ensure that they are perfect. He is also prone to binge-eating unhealthy food that he then vomits up, an unsettling pattern that shows him at his most self-destructive.
Majors first broke out at the Sundance Film Festival four years ago with a film-defining performance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Now, he’s an incredibly hot commodity, Emmy-nominated for his role on Lovecraft Country and a Marvel mainstay slated for a major part in the forthcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. He taps into the mindset of this intense, frightening character and dials him up all the way, showing what happens when someone is molded by media without the benefit of much human guidance. It’s a towering and terrifying turn that is hard to shake.
The film, which marks writer-director Elijah Bynum’s second feature, is full of stressful moments, and follows a trajectory that becomes more unnerving as it goes. It’s not necessarily unsympathetic to its protagonist, but it is unflinching in its depiction of a man very much in pain who just keeps pushing since he believes he can get through it. There are some who won’t be able to get through this film as it becomes darker, but, provided its message is taken as a cautionary tale, this is a powerful and memorable look at the worst influences of a vain and materialistic society.
Magazine Dreams makes its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.