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Magazine Dreams ★★★★



Director: Elijah Bynum

Cast: Jonathan Majors, Taylour Paige, Haley Bennett

Released: Sundance Film Festival 2023

Jonathan Majors is quite simply an acting powerhouse, as his latest role as Killian Maddox, an amateur bodybuilder, in Magazine Dreams proves. Expect to be transfixed by his visceral performance as he transforms himself into Killian and seamlessly blends into the role in this acute portrait of loneliness, health obsession and rage. It is an unforgettable but uncomfortable watch as an intense tale of everyday occurrences escalating. Magazine Dreams is the compelling dissection of the pursuit of dreams that uncompromisingly penetrates the nightmarish flip side too.

Dreams of stardom are a common subject for film directors to tackle, but Magazine Dreams presents that unflinching intense immersion into an industry that objectifies its participants. The competition is fierce to enter bodybuilding and to be on the cover of a magazine, as Killian desires. As such, he is determined to go to the extremes to be considered. The film penetrates the behind-the-scenes activity to show the gruelling requirements for participants. The candidates, mainly from ethnic backgrounds, are judged in lineups akin to cattle and told to move in line competitively, grin and squeeze their muscles ferociously on demand. Majors gurns and grunts as he flexes those muscles in wince-inducing scenes evoking that sensation of pain to watch unfold. His naked ambition is evident, and he over-exerts himself in the gym and takes steroids to achieve his goal to the detriment of his health.

The film rivetingly explores the intense, insular routines of many a bodybuilder. The single-minded concentration required to ensure that their bodies are at their optimal is outstanding. It must be frustrating for such efforts to be criticised and fetishised in competition auditions, likely triggering a traumatic experience for many. Having an overly critical judge finding flaws in a body with zero per cent body fat and emphasising unnoticeable deltoids imperfection is a testament to the industry’s toxicity. Such scathing words can be personally devastating and contribute to anxiety, depression and a lack of self-worth to detrimental effect. Unfortunately, the constant fetishisation and commodity of black skin compounds such internalised self-loathing among bodybuilders. This connects to the systemic ignorance of the internal pain suffered by black individuals subjected to awkward situations in favour of glorifying the strong, black person’s destructive ideal. Killian’s body is thus exploited, fragmented and reduced to individual body parts; the camera insightfully highlights Killian’s glistening abs, distancing himself from being viewed humanely and having the opportunity to develop personal connections.

Recent documentaries concerning bodybuilders, such as I Am The Tigress, have explored this obsession with the body, notably black bodies, and the ensuing body dysmorphia and associated mental health issues. To the casual observer, ultimate perfection has been achieved via the carefully sculpted abs and glutes, memorialising the commitment and discipline of bodybuilders, with meal plans prepared. Killian is an example of such ritualistic health obsession as an over 6-foot tall gym warrior who proudly consumes 6000 plus calories and weighs around 200 pounds. Many gym attendees may be aware of that fine line between being healthy and the fanaticism to achieve a Greek God body ideal, which escapes Killian. A degree of masochism as there is always that desire to resemble the poster’s perfect body images seen, perhaps heightened by the idea of perfection advanced by the algorithms of the social media platforms. There is always that harmful concept sold that we can be better and do better to receive happiness; unfortunately, Killian subscribes to this notion.

Magazine Dreams once more is unforgiving in this element showing the punishment that Killian yields upon himself regarding food when he fails to achieve his goals or receives upsetting news. There is a degree of self-flagellation and heightened internal pressure that he internalises that may be disturbing viewing in an acute observation of his relationship with food.

Unfortunately, the world has not progressed beyond this standard body perfection messaging. Individuals such as Killian see the world in binary terms and are trapped in the cycle of fulfilling this aesthetic. Magazine Dreams works well as an insightful chapter study highlighting this negative cycle. However, the film’s attempts to stray into the territory of a version of Falling Down for bodybuilders result in an uneven tone that undermines its powerful themes.

There is a lot to unpack in Magazine Dreams. It is a nerve-wracking overall experience, not least with the tonal shift as Killian is witnessed surviving more damaging extremes. Still, Magazine Dreams highlights the perils within loner culture but ultimately forces us to review our behaviour towards those individuals, such as Killian, who is perhaps too innocent for this world and lacks support. It is a tragic perspective as Killian represents that duality and cannot suppress his rage.

Some may view Magazine Dreams as a glorified portrait of rage and Incel behaviour. Such a viewpoint would be reductive without appreciating the multi-faceted outlook displayed by director Elijah Bynum. At its heart, Magazine Dreams requests increased compassion for the marginalised and easily exploited individuals, such as Killian. Bynum forces the audience to confront its prejudices within an unsettling film that also broaches police brutality.

There’s no denying that Jonathan Majors will be due some awards season praise after this exceptional performance. Magazine Dreams is a bold and daring sophomore feature which will hopefully serve as a future talking point and will keep Bynum on the radar as a director that’s unafraid to be a disruptor and push those boundaries beyond conventions.

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