Sundance 2023: ‘Magazine Dreams’ is a raw, riveting study of isolation and delusion

Sundance 2023: ‘Magazine Dreams’ is a raw, riveting study of isolation and delusion

Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) in Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams — one of the most talked-about films screened at the Sundance Film Festival recently — doesn’t have a light touch. At 6 ‘1, weighing over 190 pounds, and built like a tank, he’s an intimidating presence in most rooms across the world. And yet, no one seems to register his presence.

Killian exists somewhere between fear and indifference. No one asks him how he’s doing, except for maybe his therapist. We see him googling “How to get people to like me” and practising his toothy smile. It’s not a pretty sight. He’s not someone who might be considered “likeable”. Bearing the trauma of his parents’ death, and living with his grandfather (Harrison Page) — a Vietnam veteran — whom he calls Paw Paw, Killian isn’t attuned to reading the room very well, and that’s why he ends up pushing people away with his intensity.

A ‘disturbed’ man

But the social awkwardness doesn’t matter because he’s got purpose in life – he wants to become a professional bodybuilder. He writes to his idol, Brad Vanderhorn (Mike O’Hearn), and the tone of his letters sound eerily similar to Eminem’s “Stan”. There’s a degree of delusion and entitlement in them.

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It’s not really hard to gauge that Killian is a “disturbed” individual — one who is trying to drown out the noise in his head by being disciplined, and make something of himself. But he’s also angry at how the system is rigged against him — a black man, with not the most impressive demeanour. So, he tries to be the most impressive version of himself, physically. He puts in the hours to have the most ‘perfect’ body, he injects himself with steroids, and does lines of cocaine before each gym session. He pours his anger and resentment into the gym routines.

The rot in the system

Jonathan Majors’ raw and lonely lead performance, might remind some of Joaquin Phoenix from Joker (2019). Both films showcase the rot in the structures around us, and how it continues to oppress and bully a section of the society until they’re forced to turn. Both actors mould their bodies with a punishing routine to showcase their mindspace.

In Phoenix’s case, we see someone starving for contact, while in Majors’ case we see a body on the verge of bursting from unsaid thoughts and unprocessed feelings. Writer-director Elijah Bynum’s masterstroke lies in how he makes us care for Killian, even when he’s indulging in far-from-ideal behaviour — like spitting in a patron’s food, towering over his boss who is about to fire him — with something as inconsequential as a quiver.

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Majors’ performance is so intensely physical and he’s so good as the broken Killian that there are entire scenes where he doesn’t even need words to communicate his gloomy mindspace. Like, in a terrific date sequence with a fellow worker (Hailey Bennett), Killian is almost belligerent in the way he talks about his dreams (and delusions), when she asks him what kind of music he likes. He’s spent so much time dreaming up a scenario like this that he doesn’t even pay attention to her question, as the dam breaks. Also, watch out for the way Majors wordlessly exhibits Killian’s humiliation and shame at the end of this cataclysmic date.

The elusive American Dream

Bynum’s film hints at how the American Dream systemically eludes people like Killian. He’s naive enough to think if he puts in the work, the results will eventually favour him. It’s over here that Killian Maddox begins to look like the protagonist of Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple (2020). Sometimes, it’s not about hard work, commitment or even purity. Maybe you’re just not good enough. And even if you are, the powers that be might not favour you, because you don’t look a certain way or don’t know how to work people. Killian is hardly the kind to pay attention to the many variables, instead fuelling his workouts with more rage, resentment and substances. Never stopping to introspect whether he actually has a shot given the factors outside of ‘merit’.

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The first 80 minutes of Magazine Dreams are sublime, watching Killian training for his shot, pushing his body to the limit, keeping his anger in check and voice low. It concludes with a ravishing scene in which a beat-up Killian gets up on stage, blood dripping down the arches of his back muscles at the National’s. It’s only after that is when we see the film floundering in the dark for an ending.

A dream sequence

There’s a moment where he’s on the ground outside a restaurant, where he has misbehaved. He’s wearing a bomber jacket like George Floyd’s, with cops hovering over him with pepper spray and batons. Another sees him enter a nightclub with a gun. One more scene where he shows up on stage and shoots his idol — only to realise moments later it’s a “dream sequence” — feels like a cop-out. There’s a scene with a racist white man telling Killian “what’s the point of being on a mountain top, if there’s no one to look down on” — a line Killian repeats to a judge who had said he has ‘small’ deltoids, while holding him at gun-point.

Unlike Joker, it could be argued that Magazine Dreams never finds its moment of catharsis, and also has too many of them. It helps though that Majors remains faultless till the very end. Like Killian, the film has honourable intentions and superb work ethic. But it also wants it too bad.

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