In 1951, Langston Hughes posed the ever-relevant question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” In the 2023 Sundance world premiere of Magazine Dreams, writer/director Elijah Bynum and star Jonathan Majors attempt to answer it in the most stressful, tense way possible that asks you to not only consider what happens to the dream, but the dreamer himself.
In the nearly two-hour-long psycho-drama, Majors is Killian Maddox, an amateur bodybuilder who lives with his ailing veteran grandfather. Maddox fanatically and uncomfortably works out between court-mandated therapy appointments and part-time shifts at a grocery store where he harbors a crush on a friendly cashier. Living with what many can presume as some form of mental illness (perhaps brought on by childhood trauma) that makes it hard for him to read social cues and maintain control of his volatile temper, we watch uneasily as Maddox spirals deeper into his fixation on turning his physique into one of epic, muscle-y proportions—even it means he’s sacrificing his health and well-being to do so.
While Majors is mostly scantily-clad throughout the film, seeing images of his well-toned body increasingly shifts from potentially distracting to potentially deadly as the film progresses. During scenes of his workouts, Maddox barks like a dog and grunts loudly as he edges himself to the brink of his intestinal fortitude and external strength. He’s obsessed with attaining the unattainable—not in the sense of his physical ambition, but in his internal pursuit for self and societal acceptance.
Sadly, throughout the film, the aforementioned pursuit often shows up disguised as shyness, awkwardness and rage from consistently being made to feel like an unseen and unheard invalid by those around him. It also forces our protagonist to endure blow after blow as his quest sees him travail from one bad occurrence to another in such an unrelenting way, it’s almost unbearable to take in. Specifically, during the moments after he meets Brad Vanderhorn, a professional bodybuilder whom he idolizes, what transpires afterward almost demands you crack under the weight of its implications.
In some of the most telling and saddening moments of the film, Majors’ Maddox masterfully leans into delusions of grandeur, oft-talking as if he’s accomplished the slightly maniacal goal he’s set for himself no matter how untrue. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism developed to help distract himself from the constant assaults on his physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Perhaps it’s a strategy he employs to actualize the words his grandfather tells him: “You pick up weights, you put’em down. Everything else is a fairy tale.” Unfortunately, we don’t get to see a fairy tale ending for Maddox. What we get instead is an ending that leaves you sitting somewhere between feelings of slight relief, sympathy, empathy, and anxiety that lingers long after the credits roll.
What’s undeniable is that Majors dissolves into this role in a way that’s sure to garner critical acclaim once again, and perhaps finally cement him in conversations for the Oscars next year—pending the timing of the film’s wide release. What’s also indisputable is that this film is a tough, tough watch with themes and ideas that are sure to spark a myriad of conversations around mental health and masculinity. The film also challenges us to examine how we view and treat those we perceive as threats, but who are actually moving through the world as one of “the least of these,” carrying around their longing for connection like a sagging, heavy load that could explode from being unfulfilled at any second.