Sundance 2023: ‘Magazine Dreams’: A Bodybuilder’s Downward Spiral


Jonathan Majors in “Magazine Dreams.” (Photo by Glen Wilson | Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

By Andre Montoya, Arts Writer

Roids and Rage

Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors), a quiet man watching over his grandfather and pursuing his dream of competitive bodybuilding, slowly, agonizingly spirals downward in “Magazine Dreams.” At times, it’s difficult to watch this character reach rock bottom, only to descend even further.

There’s no aspect of Killian’s life that is faring well. He has an inability to understand social cues, control his anger, hold a job, enter the dating scene or navigate a world that is too callous to care.

In his small world, there is the pretty checkout clerk Killian tries to pursue, his pop-pop for whom he cares for and his bodybuilder idol whose poster hangs central in his bedroom.

Jeffrey Langley Jr., a Daily Utah Chronicle opinion writer, shared his own thoughts about the dangers of competitive bodybuilding, specifically when it comes to young people. Many of the dangers Langley mentions materialize on screen in this movie.

For example, the article specifically mentions “bigorexia,” a colloquial term to describe the body dysmorphic thoughts bodybuilders have when thinking about their own physique and size.

In the movie, Killian obsesses over a criticism that his “deltoids were too small,” which digs at Killian’s insecurity to no end. Killian is clearly hurting himself with his bodybuilding obsession. He hyper-fixates on slights and criticisms while abusing steroids and other vices like pornography. The audience will constantly ask themselves if there is hope for this character or if it may be too late.

A Major Assist

In the last few years, Jonathan Majors has exploded in popularity, and deservedly so. This began with his breakout role in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” then his leading protagonist role in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” and his future villain roles in “Creed III” and the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In “Magazine Dreams,” Majors is given the chance to flesh his character out and offer a tragic side to Killian, a role not often given to an actor of color. The chance to portray someone struggling with mental illness, while not shying away from the harder-to-watch aspects, is not as common as it should be.

Killian is a powder keg of destructive rage in one moment, and the next he’s a despondent monotonous person with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. It’s to his credit as an actor that Majors is able to provide the necessary characterization equally between these two extremes.

William Lattimore (Harrison Page), or “Pop-pop,” is the only other guiding force in Killian’s life. As the aged war veteran, Page provides this character with some heart and the movie with a few lighter moments.

Jessie (Haley Bennett), the checkout clerk Killian crushes on, is more like him than he realizes. She is also shy and has difficulty socializing but still wants to try regardless. For her brief appearance, Bennett comes off as endearing, which makes it even sadder when things go awry.

Brad Vanderhorn (Michael O’Hearn) is the bodybuilding bigwig Killian adores and strives to reach the level of one day. Throughout the movie, Killian writes him letters, but never really expects a reply. That is until he receives one, and what happens from then on is jarring, to say the least.

Patricia Waldron (Harriet Sansom Harris), Killian’s therapist, sometimes comes across as how the audience may feel, sympathetic and hoping that Killian will make the right decision. She still pulls for him despite what he’s done, and her faith is enough to keep the audience engaged.

Still Waters

There are tons of Killian Maddoxs in the world, haunting the free-weight racks at gyms in hoodies and sweatpants, pulling 45-pound curls, yet still wanting to pull more. They want to be bigger and stronger despite already being yoked to the gills. To an outsider, it seems nonsensical that they would carry around this level of dissatisfaction, but it’s a sad truth nonetheless.

During the Q&A portion of the Sundance premiere, writer-director Elijah Bynum said he came up with the idea for “Magazine Dreams” while at the gym after noticing how patrons would give bodybuilders a wide berth.

“What a peculiar way to move through the world, where you’re both feared and ignored at the same time,” he said.

Perhaps this movie can give a window into the lives of people who may not seem to be struggling on the outside but are. 

“Magazine Dreams” has already won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Creative Vision at Sundance and will surely garner more praise as it is seen by more audiences.


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