Magazine Dreams: Sundance 2023 Film Review

Year: 2023

Runtime: 124 Minutes

Director/Writer: Elijah Bynum

Stars: Jonathan Majors, Haley Bennett, Taylour Page, Mike O’Hearn, Harrison Page, Harriet Sansom Harris

By Morgan Roberts

Obsession. It is the overarching theme in the latest Elijah Bynum film, “Magazine Dreams.” Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) wants to be one of the top body builders. It consumes most conversations he has and every action he takes. It is why he is always at the gym, it’s why he takes steroids, and it’s why he orders five protein-heavy entrees at restaurants. Everything revolves around body building. But as his aspirations become more complicated, he begins to spiral out of control.

Unlike its main character, “Magazine Dreams” lacks focus. Yes, in principle, it is about a body builder consumed by his obsession to be the very best. But rather than immersing in that world, we get surface level in a bunch of different elements of his life that the plot becomes convoluted and overbearing. We see Killian interact with his work crush (Haley Bennett) and his grandfather (Harrison Page) and his counselor (Harriet Sansom Harris), but we know next to nothing about these characters nor have an investment the same way Killian would with these characters. Due to these fragments relationships and fragmented interactions, we are never given anything satisfactory or substantial enough to be interested in the outcomes.

Jonathan Majors appears in Magazine Dreams by Elijah Bynum, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson

This is extremely disappointing considering Majors’ performance. It is not just the physical transformation that is astonishing but the emotional rollercoaster he takes the audience on. One moment, he has you empathizing with Killian. The next, you are left unsettled or anxious as you watch him spiral out of control. Majors makes this larger than life character soft at times. It is his fumbled and self-conscious demeanor that entices his coworker to agree to a date. But it is his volatility that rattles you the next. Another MVP of the film is cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. He sets up some truly striking images. Whether it is at the body building competition or seeing Killian in the red light district, Arkapaw sets up some incredible shots.

And while there are acting and technical achievements to behold, there is one overarching issue with the film that really struck me. Much of the film is about toxic masculinity and mental health. Killian, at one points, admits to severe mental health in his family. So, when films continually pathologize toxic masculinity, it conflates the continued scapegoating of mental health. Toxic masculinity is an issue, but one created by society. It is not a mental illness. Furthermore, it would have been more easy to understand Killian’s bursts of aggression due to steroid use. But with the insinuation of mental health conditions, we see the continual misrepresentation that people who are mentally ill are also violent. I went to school and have a Master’s degree in professional counseling. Much of my education routinely emphasized that people with serious mental health conditions are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators. (Also, I am saying more likely, not there are never cases where mental illness leads to perpetration of violent acts). It is a frustrating issue in cinema, and one that clearly remains.

Despite striking cinematography and a powerhouse performance from Majors, “Magazine Dreams” does not quite reach its potential. If it had been more focused and had not fallen in the popular culture misconceptions, it would have been a much stronger film. 


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