The film, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is the second feature film written and directed by the impressive Elijah Bynum. It follows Killian Maddox, an amateur athlete with no team, support, sponsorship or encouragement of any kind except from his Vietnam veteran grandfather, William Lattimore (Harrison Page). His life consists of grueling workouts, injections of bad ideas, invisible shifts at a grocery store, and court-ordered meetings with a counselor (Harriet Sansom Harris). He unemotionally watches porn while eating, and takes an awkward interest in a grocery store co-worker named Jessie (Haley Bennet) while maintaining a one-way correspondence with champion bodybuilder Brad Vanderhorn (Mike O’Hearn). His dream is to appear in a fitness magazine with pictures like the one on his bedroom wall.
Killian has a one-sided focus that could also be mistaken for emptiness. But what appears to be emptiness can also be a quietly heroic effort to control his explosive temper. As a 6’1, very muscular black man in America, he is often seen as a threat by the white people around him – some places it in danger. He knows that at his slightest tantrum, shorter men will be overly zealous in their efforts to restrain him.
Killian’s supreme physical strength comes with a surprising lack of confidence. Bynum chillingly and convincingly helps us understand why, without being didactic or overly explanatory. We just interact with Killian, begin to understand him and root for him, noticing little details that Bynum never exaggerates. (Killian always dresses neatly, nicer than necessary – is it just to impress Jessie? Or to put the whites at ease?)
Several scenes recall Robert De Niro’s turns as isolated taxi driver Travis Bickle Cab driver or aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin king of comedy, two of the all-time performances in movie history. Time will tell if Majors’ performance gets their recognition, but I can’t think of anything he could have done better with his role. Whether Joaquin Phoenix deserved an Oscar for it jokerJonathan Majors certainly deserves one for the more nuanced, believable and moving performance in it Magazine Dreams. If the film gains an audience at all, it’s hard to fathom anyone else winning Best Actor at the 2024 awards, when eligible.
By the way, I never make predictions like this, and if it seems premature, watch the movie. (It’s getting a lot of buzz at Sundance, so expect word on a distribution plan soon.) Upcoming Majors appearances in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Creed III should secure his status as a movie star, in an era where they supposedly no longer exist.
Majors’ physical dedication to the role is one of the most impressive I’ve seen (think De Niro’s transformation inside Raging bullor the shocking swings of Christian Bale American psychopath until The engineer until Batman begins until American hustle). To become Killian Maddox, the already muscular actor had to shred himself to bodybuilding’s outrageous standards, working out three times a day and consuming 6,100 calories daily for four months. If you’re considering training to land a role in acting – I certainly do – he’s in the Oscar fray if only for the way he looks on screen.
But his emotional control is even more impressive. Killian Maddox is an incredible character that I can’t imagine anyone else bringing to life: he fluctuates from admirable and intensely devoted to terrifyingly out of control to sweetly shy and naive. A belated appearance from the ever-excellent Taylour Paige offers further insight into his true self.
Halfway through the film adds some headline-ripped elements that leave you fearing it will devolve into poverty porn or social commentary, but then Bynum takes more twists and turns that leave you guessing until the finely crafted ending. Maddox is always on the verge of both tragedy and heroism, and the film’s most captivating moments are those where he briefly taps into a sheen of supreme confidence, where his body and emotions finally align.
Main image: Jonathan Majors in magazine dreams, directed by Elijah Bynum. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.