Sundance Review: Jonathan Majors Transforms Physically and Emotionally for Intense, Impressive Magazine Dreams

Actor Jonathan Majors is about to have a substantial year. In addition to beginning his reign of multiverse-jumping terror as Kang the Conqueror in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the foreseeable future (beginning with next week’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) and as Adonis Creed’s adversary in Creed III, Majors might have his most terrifying role yet as bodybuilder Killian Maddox in Magazine Dreams, from writer/director Elijah Bynum (Hot Summer Nights). 

We learn about Maddox in bits and pieces. He’s seeing a therapist, and it doesn’t take long for us to figure out his sessions are court-mandated and deeply necessary in controlling his steroid-driven rage. He works part time at a grocery store, where he meets a co-worker (Haley Bennett) who he sweetly but awkwardly asks out at one point, only to go on one of the most awkward first dates I’ve ever seen committed to film. He also exercises incessantly, to the point where he looks like his muscles are going to burst. I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen an actor commit so hard to a physical embodiment of a character (that doesn’t necessarily mean the performance will be flawless, but in this case, it is). Most importantly, Maddox takes care of his ailing veteran grandfather. As the title indicates, he is single minded: all he thinks about is his bodybuilding idol, Brad Vanderhorn (Michael O’Hearn), whom he writes to obsessively (very much like the character of “Stan” in the Eminem song), and one day being on the covers of all the bodybuilding magazines that Brad currently dominates.

But the film is a multi-level cautionary tale about pursuing your dreams, meeting your heroes, and moving through life with blinders on. Doctors tell him his body will start breaking down due to all the drugs and physical strain he’s putting on it. He finds it near-impossible to interact with other human beings about anything other than bodybuilding, although it’s clear that he understands the importance of human connection. Even his attempt to sleep with a patient prostitute (Taylour Paige) goes sideways, and she’s being paid to enjoy his company.

There is genuine heartbreak, several times over, especially when he’s delayed making it to an important competition for reasons that are of his own making. Maddox isn’t always the architect of his own downfall and bad luck, but he is most of the time, and you can often see it coming from far down the road. Majors plays Maddox like a coiled snake, ready not just to strike but to swallow whole. His combination of physicality and emotional vulnerability is difficult to watch sometimes, but also impossible not to. I’ve simply never seen anything quite like Magazine Dreams, and frankly, I’m not sure I could ever again. It’s not for everyone, but it was definitely for me.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.