When an independent filmmaker wants to hypnotize an audience, show off his chops, and make a grand statement, a surefire way to do it — at least if he has the talent — is to create his own version of a “Pulp Fiction”-meets-“Boogie Nights” violence-hanging-in-the-air climax set to a succulent needle drop. In “Magazine Dreams,” the writer-director Elijah Bynum (“Hot Summer Nights”), in his second feature, creates a splendid example of one of those scenes. It’s when his antihero, a bodybuilder named Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors), has started to fall apart — though you could say that he’s been falling apart from almost the first scene.
Nursing a rage that’s epic and unhinged, Killian, as the “Sopranos” theme song put it, has got himself a gun. It’s a major one: a machine gun that could strafe an elephant. But he’s got it turned on a poor quivering middle-aged man, standing in his apartment, whose crime was that when he judged a bodybuilding contest, he decided that Killian’s deltoids were too small.
That this judgment has tormented Killian ever since is a sign of his obsession, and also his massive insecurity. Before turning the gun on his adversary and making him strip, he turns up the stereo; it’s playing Patti Smith’s rapturous version of “Because the Night.” As the song surges, he forces the man, in his underwear, to imitate his own body-building poses, right down to a grin that becomes a grimace of fear. And what we see, in a depraved catharsis, is what Killian sees: that this white man with a body like a sack of potatoes declaring Killian’s deltoids to be inferior represented an insane power distortion, one that has begun to crush the life out of him.
“Magazine Dreams” picks up Killian while he’s still nurturing some hope. He’s got a physique that’s nothing short of awesome, all bulges and ripples, and he lives for perfecting that body, so that he can one day be on the cover of a magazine like his idol, Brad Vanderhorn (Michael O’Hearn). We think: Maybe he’ll get there. Killian works out constantly, shoots steroids (even though they’re making him sick), and consumes 6,000 calories a day. He enters competitions (we see him in one, posing with five other bodybuilders under the light thrown by chandeliers), and he writes letters to Vanderhorn, a former Mr. Olympia with a set of abs thick and chiseled enough to be a dinosaur shell. Killian also speaks — not too much, but when he does it’s in a gentle, thoughtful way that gets us rooting for him.
But there’s another side to him. He has a capacity for violence; he’s been locked up for it and sees a court-ordered counselor. And his ability to connect to others comes and goes. He’ll be polite and communicative one minute, only to lapse back into his monosyllabic scowl. The actor Jonathan Majors became a bodybuilder for the role (and he really did; this isn’t the sort of muscle you build by just pumping iron for two months), and we’re used to seeing a certain blunted inexpressiveness in an actor who’s this bulky and ripped. But Majors, in “Magazine Dreams,” is less Dave Bautista than Brando.
Majors looks and sounds like the hulk cousin of Dennis Haysbert, and his inner silent pensive quality is transfixing. What a performance! When Killian, who bags groceries at a supermarket, stops to flirt with the checkout worker (Haley Bennett) he has a crush on, he’s charming but oh so vulnerable, and our investment in this lug becomes total. Then they go on a date. He takes her to his favorite steak place, and for a few minutes the two seem to chime. Then Killian starts to talk about his bodybuilding ambition, and the routine that drives it — the fact that you have to push yourself to the max, every day, that even 99 percent isn’t good enough, because it’s only when you go beyond that that the muscles can expand. He sounds like a man who has been totally eaten up by his obsession, and a few minutes later she’s out the door.
“Magazine Dreams” is made in a highly orchestrated style, with each lustrous image flowing into the next. Scenes like the one in the restaurant play out slowly, naturalistically, but are charged with such tension that at moments you may find you’ve stopped breathing. Bynum, as a filmmaker, works with commanding authority, so that each sequence tells it own story. For a while, the film could almost be “The Wrestler” directed by Robert Bresson. But Bynum, more than that, has been highly influenced by “Taxi Driver,” and what he borrows — and makes his own — from Scorsese’s great movie (with a nod to “Joker”) is the kind of protagonist we’re identifying with and also standing back and observing, because he seems stuck between trying to be a human being and not being all there.
We want to see Killian achieve his dreams, but the film is structured as his long slow descent into the abyss. Will there be an audience to follow him there? You could ask that question of almost any Sundance movie, but “Magazine Dreams” offers a special conundrum: It’s made with skillful power, and with a real vision (the film’s underlying subject is its deep dive into racial anger), yet it’s also a 124-minute movie built almost entirely around the desolate spectacle of Killian’s solitary mission. He lives with his broken-down grandfather, who’s a Vietnam veteran, but mostly he comes on like the world’s most well-built incel. To say that this movie will challenge viewers is an understatement. Yet I found myself hanging on every scene — at least until the last half hour, when Killian picks up his guns and you feel like you’re just counting down the minutes for him to use one.
The Killian we see comes on like a paragon of self-sabotage. We learn about the violence that took his parents, and the violence that bursts out in him. After a hardware store refuses his request to repaint the house, he charges down after hours and trashes the place, smashing through windows until his arms bleed. Yet the film’s implication is that the store’s attitude was racist. Every one of Killian’s rages springs from his sense that the deck is stacked against him, and there’s no way out. When Brad Vanderhorn finally answers his letters, calling him on the phone, he’s thrilled at the prospect of meeting his idol. Yet the way the encounter plays out, Killian just feels used. An encounter with a sex worker, played by “Zola’s” magnetic Taylour Paige, seems more promising until he messes that up as well.
At certain points Killian goes “crazy,” yet Majors’ brilliant performance cues us to the grander note of despair that’s always driving the explosion. Travis Bickle, in “Taxi Driver,” was crazy too, but the beauty of that movie is that his disconnected, pent-up fury expressed something that’s there in a lot of us. “Magazine Dreams” creates a character haunting in his extremity. But his dream becomes ours, as does the heartbreaking prospect of it being snuffed before our eyes.