How do you make people like you? How do you make people remember you? These are the Google search queries of Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors), a bodybuilder with delusional dreams of fame and an isolated life, tending to his Vietnam veteran grandpa as he dedicates every waking second to improving his physique and pushing his body to the extreme. A ruthlessly nihilistic beast of a movie, Elijah Bynum’s second feature Magazine Dreams provides a one-note powerhouse acting showcase for Majors, who ends up getting lost in the drawn-out second half as thematic points that initially sting get repeated ad nauseam and red herrings meant to shock become unnecessary side plots.

Shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw with the same unrelenting, suffocating vision he brought to the films of Justin Kurzel, it starts with Maddox as he projects his dream vision: alone on the stage as lights glisten off his perfectly sculpted body. Cut to the reality of his dank garage, working out during 3.5-hour sessions, recording instructional videos for his YouTube channel in which he receives comments asking why he hasn’t killed himself yet. Prone to bursts of violence, his mind is one of constant torment as we hear in voiceover the letters he is writing to his idol Brad Vanderhorn (Michael O’Hearn), building an unhealthy parasocial relationship with someone he believes is his friend but has never responded to a single correspondence. These missives on desiring perfection and examining everything wrong with the world from his warped viewpoint carry a Schrader-esque confessional tone, and the influences of that work along with another Scorsese classic, The King of Comedy, are felt in every fiber of Magazine Dreams––not entirely surprising considering Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy is among the producers.

Whereas Todd Phillips pillaged similar influences to creatively bankrupt ends in Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix delivering the most dreadful performance in an otherwise sterling career, Bynum is proficient in building a credible psychology for Maddox, plunging us effectively into this world of chiseled abs, steroid injections, and mountains of eggs, steaks, and chicken breasts for every meal. Majors is never less than engrossing, with a genuinely staggering transformation of physicality and a distressing past regarding the deaths of parents that led to an undeveloped capacity for social interactions. His responses oscillate from furiously fumbled diatribes to elongated silences, especially as it relates to his desires for a relationship with his grocery store co-worker (Haley Bennett), leading to a nightmare of a first date. As Bynum lays out his corrupted, toxic conscience, there’s enough intrigue and sympathy concocted to pull one in.

The tables aren’t so much turned as they are elevated when Maddox’s penchant for violence leads to an upsetting path of self-destruction he’ll still travel any lengths necessary to advance his career, leading to a Whiplash-esque moment of blind perseverance. A promising first half gives way to a muddled second with the film journeying down multiple unwieldy paths, with scenes featuring Taylour Paige over-elucidating points we gleaned from the first moments with Maddox and, as he begins a fascination with firearms, a thread of enacting homegrown terrorism is dangled. Throw in more subplots about the dangers of meeting your heroes and others in which all of America’s problems seem to be summarized, and Magazine Dreams starts to feel like an unfocused hodgepodge of multiple endings that has long outstayed its welcome. Failing to follow through with its dark vision, Bynum ultimately settles on an unearned, disingenuous uplifting note.

Inside this rambling two-hour patchwork could be a riveting 90-minute character study exploring a traumatized soul adrift in a society whose very foundations have been built on the commodification of Black bodies, Maddox’s solitary goal being to perfect and sell his own for fame. It’s a shame Bynum doesn’t fully examine such contradictions and complexities, instead solely relying on a menacing Majors to take the repetitive narrative into overdrive.

Magazine Dreams premiered at Sundance 2023.

Grade: C+

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