Magazine Dreams Review: Jonathan Majors Is Phenomenal In This Brutal, Uncomfortable Story Of An Unstable Bodybuilder [Sundance]

"On every street in every city in this country, there's a nobody who dreams of being a somebody." So says the tagline for Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." It's a sentiment that can also be applied to the main character of "Magazine Dreams," which almost seems to be asking the question: What if Travis Bickle was a bodybuilder instead of a cab driver? Killian Maddox is, to quote "Taxi Driver" again, God's Lonely Man — a socially awkward, mentally unstable young man with big dreams of being a famous bodybuilder. He's certainly ripped enough — his body looks like it's chiseled from stone. But it's not enough. He can't seem to find the acclaim he deserves. And he can't seem to connect with anyone. His only real positive connection is his sick grandfather, who doesn't say much. 

Killian is played by Jonathan Majors, and at this point, I think it's more than fair to say that Majors is one of the best actors working right now. He's been slowly building up a strong body of work, and here, he turns in what might be his best performance yet — a heartbreaking, immensely uncomfortable portrait of a hopelessly lonely man boiling with destructive male rage. Majors (and his jaw-dropping physique) is in nearly every frame of the film, and he commands the screen with his scary, funny, towering performance. We're both afraid of Killian and sorry for him. There are several occasions where it looks like some sort of lifeline will be thrown to this damaged man, only for it to turn out to be a false start. And with each disappointment, Killian's anger and confusion grow, to the point where it threatens to consume and destroy him — and anyone in his path. 

Jonathan Majors is the reason the film works as well as it does

All of this is rendered via lush, gorgeous, moody cinematography courtesy of Adam Arkapaw. So many movies and TV shows these days are almost impenetrably dark — any scene at night or in a dark room is practically unwatchable. But Arkapaw knows exactly how to embrace shadows and darkness, with beams of light cutting through in hazy, dreamy ways. One late scene is lit almost entirely by a glowing fish tank, and it's hauntingly beautiful. This is one of the best-looking films I've seen in a while. 

Writer-director Elijah Bynum refuses to flinch away from the raw, uncomfortable brutality of his film, to the point where audiences may find themselves squirming. That's a feature, not a bug — there's nothing wrong with art that challenges us. Indeed, we need more of that. While this is a wholly unpleasant film, it draws you into Killian's fractured world. The first half of the movie paints us a portrait of Killian as he dreams big and strives for a connection. He strikes up the nerve to ask his cute supermarket coworker (Haley Bennett) on a date, and to his surprise, she agrees. However, the date is nothing short of a disaster. Bennett's role is small, but the date scene gives her a chance to shine as she grows more and more horrified at how Killian is behaving. 

The second half of "Magazine Dreams" is when the film is bound to lose some of its audience. Killian grows increasingly deranged and the film threatens to go to even darker places. But no matter how dark things become, Majors still awes with his powerhouse performance. He's so good here it's scary, and scary is the point. We're scared for, and of, Killian. I found myself hoping against hope that something, anything, would come along and save this doomed soul, and that's entirely thanks to Majors' performance, which is sympathetic despite bursts of brutality. "Magazine Dreams" will alienate some viewers, but even those who aren't able to get on board with what Bynum is doing will be unable to deny how incredible Jonathan Majors is here. It's the type of unique, highly memorable performance people talk about for years to come. 

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10