The Lovecraft Country star is unmissable in Elijah Bynum's surreal, explosive character study.

There are certain films that seem to ask for more than performance, a whole embodiment of psyche and soul that only a vaunted handful of actors (Denzel Washington, Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale) become known for. That kind of Taxi Driver, I-drink-your-milkshake intensity is all over Magazine Dreams, which premiered last night at the Sundance Film Festival. And while it may not technically make Jonathan Majors a star — his upcoming commitments to Marvel seem much more likely to get that business done — it is hard not to feel physically altered just by watching him on screen in writer-director Elijah Bynum's astonishing and often excruciating drama. 

Majors disappears entirely inside Killian Maddox, an aspiring bodybuilder who lives in a shabby bungalow in Los Angeles with his ailing grandfather (Harrison Page). Killian's body is a temple, an ode to rippling symmetry that he feeds with endless plates of protein and punishing workouts. But his mind is a swarm of bees; he can't seem to figure out how to read social cues or say the ordinary things that put people at ease, and violent outbursts overtake him suddenly, like electric storms. 

Jonathan Majors appears in Magazine Dreams
Jonathan Majors in 'Magazine Dreams'
| Credit: Glen Wilson

The steroids he injects daily probably don't help, but it's more than that: Confusion and grievance are his daily burden, and he will not be ignored — not by the painting service that does a careless job on his grandpa's house, or the bronzed fitness god (Mike O'Hearn) who won't respond to his fan mail. He faithfully enters every competition he can, and he can't understand why he hasn't yet become the kind of cover-star champion that papers his walls and consumes his thoughts — except that the only reason must be that he's not pushing hard enough, not unless it hurts.

But he's also not wrong about a lot of what he sees in the world, the institutional indifference and inequalities that should make any sane person paying attention furious. Sometimes he says these things to his court-ordered therapist (Harriet Sansom Harris) with startling lucidity; other times, he seems to be living entirely in his own fantasies. And that is a burden he can't share, as much as he tries: When he finally finds the courage to ask out his crush (Cyrano's Haley Bennett) at the grocery store he works at three days a week, their date is tender and sweet, and then abruptly a disaster.

All the things that might keep Killian anchored — recognition, a small kindness, connection — can't seem to stop going the wrong way, and as he continues to tumble down rabbit holes, Magazine becomes a sort of spiraling fever dream, and an endurance test. Bynum (Hot Summer Nights) swinging between stark verité and the more surreal corners of Killian's own increasingly untethered mind, begins to make it clear where all this might be going: We know what lonely, disgruntled, and mentally unwell men are capable of. (Or more accurately, we are terrified because we know we can't ever really know.)

That makes the last 40 minutes feel singularly, almost unbearably fraught to sit through, a string of harrowing scenes that vibrate with the possibility of both redemption and explosive violence. Again and again, Bynum's spare, crackling script confounds whatever expectations his audience might have of what comes next, though he also gives the movie at least four endings, several of which would probably have served it very well. But even as the pacing falters, Majors is impossible to look away from: a man who desperately needs the world to see him — and if they refuse, to feel his pain. Grade: A–

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