When an independent filmmaker wants us to hypnotize an audience, show off his chops, and make a great statement, one surefire way to do it—at least if you’ve got the talent—is to create your own version of a “Pulp Fiction”-meets-” Boogie Nights” violence-hungry-at-a-climax sets up a juicy needle drop. In “Magazine Dreams,” writer-director Eliza Bynum (“Hot Summer Nights”), in her second feature, creates a great example of one of those scenarios. This is when his antihero, a bodybuilder named Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors), begins to fall apart – although you can tell he’s falling apart from the very first scene.
Nursing an epic and relentless rage, Killian, as the “Sopranos” theme song says, got himself a gun. This is a staple: a machine gun that can stop an elephant. But he turns it on to a poor shivering middle-aged man, standing in his apartment, whose crime was that when he judged a bodybuilding competition, he decided that Killian’s deltoids were too small.
This verdict has plagued Killian ever since, a symptom of his obsession, and also of his massive insecurities. Before turning the gun on his opponent and strangling him, he turns on the stereo; It’s playing Patti Smith’s soulful version of “Because the Night.” As the song progresses, he forces the man in his underwear to mimic his own body-building posture, right down to a smile that turns into a shudder of fear. And what we see, in a perverse catharsis, is what Killian sees: this white man with a body like a sack of potatoes, declaring Killian’s deltoids inferior, representing the distortion of a maddened force that has begun to crush his life. .
“Magazine Dreams” picks up Killian while she’s still harboring some hope. She has a body that’s terrific, nothing less than all bumps and waves, and she lives to perfect that body, so she can one day be on the cover of a magazine like her idol, Brad VanderHorn (Michael O’Horn). We think: maybe he will get there. Killian works out constantly, takes steroids (even though they make him sick) and consumes 6,000 calories a day. He enters competitions (we see him in one, posing with five other bodybuilders under the light thrown by a chandelier) and he writes letters to Vanderhorn, a former Mr. Olympia with a set as thick as a dinosaur shell. Killian also talks – not a lot, but when he does it’s in a soft, thoughtful way that makes us root for him.
But there is another side to it. He has the power of violence; He is detained for this and sees a court-ordered counselor. And his ability to connect with others comes and goes. He would be polite and communicative one minute, only to revert to his monosyllabic scowl. Actor Jonathan Majors turned into a bodybuilder for the role (and he really did; it’s not muscle you build by just pumping iron for two months), and we’re used to seeing a certain blunt impudence in an actor. This is heavy and ripped. But Major, less Dave Bautista than Brando in “Magazine Dreams.”
Major looks and sounds like Dennis Haysbert’s Hulk cousin, and the quiet contemplative quality within him is transfixing. What a performance! Killian, who carries groceries to a supermarket, has a crush on her when he stops to flirt with the checkout girl (Halley Bennett), she’s charming but oh so vulnerable, and our investment in this log is complete. Then they go on a date. He takes her to his favorite steak place, and the two play for a few minutes. Then Killian starts talking about his bodybuilding ambitions, and the routine that drives it — the fact that you have to push yourself to the max every day, even 99 percent isn’t good enough, because it’s only when you go beyond that that the muscles stretch. can He sounds like a guy who’s completely consumed by his obsession, and minutes later he’s out the door.
“Magazine Dreams” is crafted in a highly orchestrated style, with each brilliant image flowing into the next. Scenes like the restaurant are seen slowly, naturally, but are charged with such excitement that the moment you find yourself out of breath. Bynum, as a filmmaker, works with commanding authority, so that each sequence tells its own story. For a while, the film could almost be “The Wrestler” directed by Robert Bresson. But Bynum, more than that, is highly influenced by “Taxi Driver” and what he borrows from — and makes his own — the kind of hero we identify with (with a nod to “Joker”) from Scorsese’s great movie. And stands back and observes, because he seems stuck between trying to be human and not being there.
We want to see Killian achieve his dreams, but the film is structured as his long slow descent into the abyss. Will there be an audience to follow him? You can ask that question of almost any Sundance movie, but “Magazine Dreams” offers a special puzzle: It’s expertly made and with a realistic perspective (the film’s underlying theme is a deep dive into racial anger), yet it’s a 124 The minute movie is built almost entirely around the isolated scenes of Killian’s desert mission. He lives with his broken-down grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran, but mostly comes across as the world’s most well-built insel. Needless to say, this movie will challenge the audience. Yet I found myself hanging on to every scene – at least until the last half hour, when Killian picks up his gun and you feel like you’re counting down the minutes for him to use one.
The Killian we see comes across as a paragon of self-destruction. We learn about the violence that led to his parents and the violence that spills over into him. After a hardware store refuses a request to repaint the house, he charges in hours later and trashes the place, smashing windows until his arm bleeds. Yet the image implies that the shop’s attitude was racist. Every bit of Killian’s angst stems from his sense that the deck is stacked against him, and there’s no way out. When Brad Vanderhorn finally answers her letter, calling her on the phone, she is thrilled at the prospect of meeting her idol. Yet as the encounter unfolds, Killian just feels used. An encounter with a sex worker, played by “Zola’s” magnetic Taylor Page, seems more promising until she messes that up, too.
Killian goes “crazy” at certain points, yet Majors’ brilliant performance points us to the grand note of desperation that always erupts. Travis Bickle, too, was crazy in “Taxi Driver,” but the beauty of that movie is that his disconnected, pent-up anger expressed something that many of us have. “Magazine Dreams” creates a character haunted at its peak. But his dreams become ours, as heartbreaking possibilities flash before our eyes.