Jonathan Majors’ incredible transformation to play bodybuilder Killian Maddox in Magazine Dreams is breathtaking, first seen in godlike glory in a daydream, striking the requisite professional competition poses, caressed by shafts of golden light. But as the soaring strains of Jason Mills’ score wind down into a deflating drone, signaling trouble ahead, the image shifts to Killian under the naked lightbulbs of his humble garage. That’s the first hint that this physically imposing Adonis is in fact a lonely, painfully shy and desperately insecure man, whose feelings of inadequacy, buried self-loathing and resentment often manifest in eruptions of violent rage.
It’s an all-in performance for the ages, layered with as much vulnerability as anger, and it’s to Majors’ credit that our hearts ache for Killian even — or perhaps especially — when he’s out of control. Majors and writer-director Elijah Bynum manage the considerable feat of making us fear more for the intimidating colossus than the quivering employer he’s standing over.
When the character is on stage in a bodybuilding contest flexing for the judges, he’s all rippling, glistening muscle and taut sinew, his veins popping even if his smile is a forced grimace. But when he tries talking to Jessie (Haley Bennett), the cashier on whom he has a crush at the supermarket where he bags groceries, he’s hunched and embarrassed, as if wishing to disappear rather than face possible rejection. When he does ask her out, he preempts her refusal even before she has a chance to speak. That awkwardness often shows in his gait, partly because of his massive bulk, but more tellingly, his gnawing discomfort in his own skin.
Bynum has shaped an uncommonly intense character study around Killian and his single-minded tragic obsession, shading his quest for championship greatness with aspects of race, socioeconomic disadvantage, mental health issues and deeply embedded trauma. There’s also a saddening acknowledgment of the unwavering confidence that’s a rigid American requirement of anyone making a bid for fame, evidenced in the vicious online comments on Killian’s stammering bodybuilding videos. More than one suggests suicide is his best option.
The first half of this riveting movie is a nuanced portrait of a complicated man, gradually exploring the pathos beneath his still hopeful stabs at self-actualization as he attempts, with varying degrees of success, to shake off disappointment. It’s in the second half, when Killian’s incipient incel tendencies come to the fore and he turns into a seething Travis Bickle, that Magazine Dreams becomes self-indulgently tortured, punishing in the wrong ways as it sputters over a handful of possible endings to the inescapable trap of a tarnished American Dream that won’t die.
Killian lives with his ailing Vietnam vet grandfather William (Harrison Page) and dreams of being on the cover of fitness magazines like his idol Brad Vanderhorn (Mike O’Hearn), the champion bodybuilder to whom he writes regular letters, signed “Your number one fan.” It’s telling that when we see Killian in conversation with just about anyone, he speaks in a monosyllabic mumble, but in the voiceovers of his letters to Brad, he’s clear, confident and articulate, suggesting the way he sees himself, as an accomplished star athlete, at home in the spotlight.
At times he puts up that front in court-ordered sessions with his therapist Patricia (Harriet Sansom Harris, terrific), maintaining that he’ll be competing nationally soon, that he has booked his first magazine cover and that things are going great with his girlfriend. The sad concern in Patricia’s eyes show that she sees the self-delusion behind those transparently false claims. Bynum’s script doesn’t provide details of the violence that first landed Killian in therapy, but we do learn that he threatened the nurses while hospitalized. “I’m gonna split your head open and drink your brains like soup” is one of his go-to warnings.
The truth about his single date with Jessie is that it was an unmitigated disaster — and it makes for one of the movie’s most wrenching scenes. He overdresses to take her to an informal steakhouse and they seem to hit it off at first. She finds him attractive and his shyness endearing. But the matter-of-fact way he explains the shocking means by which he was orphaned is the first red flag. Then the minute the conversation moves to bodybuilding he launches into a manic rant about the self-discipline and total commitment required, while ordering half the protein-heavy meals on the menu.
Bennett’s face, initially sweet and open, shifts from discomfort into a mix of pity and fear as Killian drones on oblivious and Jessie realizes the destabilizing extent to which he’s consumed by his ambition. She’s gone even before the food arrives. Killian’s clumsy efforts to retain his dignity when the waitress informs him that she left are one of many instances in which we see the flimsiness of the armor he’s constructed.
The daily routine Killian has set for himself in order to meet his goals goes far beyond “no pain no gain.” The strenuous gym workouts, the running, the ice baths and high-caloric food intake alone aren’t giving him the added mass he desires, so he regularly injects himself with steroids that are destroying his internal organs and snorts cocaine to boost his energy. Still, the words of a competition judge who criticized his hamstrings and said his delts were too small eat away at him.
Those words resurface in a harrowing scene near the end when his mind is really falling apart. But even though the incident for once allows him to feel the power of looking down from on high, it affords him no lasting peace.
A series of events chip away at any remaining shreds of Killian’s stability. During a phone altercation with a painting contractor over work on the house that William has deemed unfinished, Killian struggles to contain his anger, repeating to himself “I control my emotions, my emotions don’t control me.” When that doesn’t work and he vents his rage — speeding to the guy’s hardware store after business hours, his customary car stereo accompaniment of death metal roaring in his ears — the destruction that follows is stunning. Man becomes human wrecking ball.
The retaliation by the store owner’s nephew and a pair of thugs is brutal, with one of the assailants spitting out “What you got now, you fuckin’ ape?” before they take off. The implication is that every part of this clash, starting with the contractor’s refusal to address the dissatisfaction of a customer who served his country in the Armed Forces, has an undercurrent of racism. Killian’s awareness of that seems clear in a subsequent scene in a diner, where he confronts the man who led the attack while he’s having a meal with his terrified family.
The film begins inching into horror territory when the bloodied and beaten Killian picks himself up off the ground and drives to a scheduled bodybuilding contest. His blind determination, despite the alarming evidence of his physical state, is captured in one of the increasingly frequent instances in which cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s camerawork takes on a woozy, hallucinatory feel, blurring the line between what’s in Killian’s head and what’s actually happening.
An abortive encounter with a sex worker (Taylour Paige, wonderful in her disappointingly brief screen time) shows that any human connection is now beyond his reach. And a meeting with an inspirational figure gives him a much-needed lift only to leave him feeling degraded. Bynum justifies that scene as another crucial step in Killian’s unraveling. But the film could be accused of homophobia by adding that factor to the already abundant reasons for the protagonist’s self-hatred.
It’s when Killian purchases an arsenal of guns that the movie starts tipping over the edge into excess and obviousness. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear the great Nick Lowe song “The Beast in Me,” but as a portent of violent fantasies being unleashed, its lyrics could hardly be more literal. The clumsiest interlude occurs in a bar, where Killian is approached by a drunken cokehead who steers him into the bathroom to snort a few lines. The stranger then launches into a hate-fueling rant that’s so wildly overwritten in its world-gone-to-shit societal disgust and urge for revenge it takes you out of the movie.
The expectation of climactic bloodshed is palpable, and Bynum certainly knows how to ratchet up the dread and suspense by agonizing degrees. But Magazine Dreams is far more interesting as a piercingly intimate psychological study of a giant enfeebled by a world in which the odds feel stacked against him, making him feel pathetic and unseen. There’s more than enough dimension and complex duality in Majors’ mesmerizing performance to sustain that narrative without turning it into a Taxi Driver riff in which the ultimate violence is a queasy tease, a flashy detour before the distressing reality of a broken man again takes hold.
The missteps of the final act don’t detract from the magnificence of Majors’ work exploring the physical, mental and spiritual anguish of a person caught in the helpless grip of a singular obsession — arguably America’s defining obsession with celebrity and success — cruelly destined to remain out of reach.
Nor do the questionable decisions take away from the movie’s consistently sharp craftsmanship, notably Arkapaw’s highly controlled visuals — the images alternately naturalistic, dreamlike and poetic, or darkening into brooding menace. Jon Otazua’s editing tracks Killian’s descent with sinuous fluidity that fuels the story’s fatalistic progression. And Hill’s tonally precise and richly varied score — laced with classical passages from Elgar, Wagner and Saint-Saens — makes haunting use of mournful strings and employs urgent drumming to chilling effect.
Its flaws notwithstanding, Magazine Dreams is a profoundly unsettling experience from which it’s impossible to look away.