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Sundance movie review: Jonathan Majors garners fear, compassion in 'Magazine Dreams'

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Jonathan Majors gives an intense performance in "Magazine Dreams." File Photo by Mike Goulding/UPI
Jonathan Majors gives an intense performance in "Magazine Dreams." File Photo by Mike Goulding/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Magazine Dreams, which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, creates a unique character and allows Jonathan Majors to give an exceptional performance. The film's protagonist is tragic and frightening, and Majors captures all of his sides.

Killian Maddox (Majors) is an aspiring bodybuilder who hopes to be in fitness magazines. He has the body for it but as the film introduces him, the viewer quickly discovers what's holding him back, besides the competitive business.

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Killian is in state-mandated therapy for aggression, but the therapist merely checks in on him to file reports. He lives with and cares for his grandfather Paw-Paw (Harrison Page) and works at a grocery store where he nervously asks out fellow cashier Jessie (Hayley Bennett).

Killian also sends letters to his favorite bodybuilder, Brad Vanderhorn (Michael O'Hearn). By the second letter, he appears obsessive, though clear Killian doesn't know any better.

A childlike personality combined with a grown man's strength makes Killian dangerous to himself and others. Majors' performance captures Killian's naive innocence and the uncontrollable rage that manifests. Taking steroids and snorting cocaine exacerbates the rage.

Killian's frustration with painters who did shoddy work is relatable. He tries to remain calm but quickly escalates the conflict into graphic threats on the phone, and then visits their store to do physical damage.

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Oversharing makes Jessie uncomfortable and Killian doesn't understand that others are not as focused on bodybuilding as he is. By an hour into the movie, Killian becomes totally delusional, telling his therapist lies he seems to believe.

Killian even attends a bodybuilding contest in an extreme state, so obsessed with competing he cannot recognize that showing up injured and bloody is unacceptable. In such scenes, writer/director Elijah Bynum ramps up the intensity with a shrieking score and pounding beat.

Magazine Dreams reveals a few details about Killian's childhood that may explain some of his trauma, but there's probably a specific diagnosis he never got. The deeper Killian descends into his self-destructive obsession, it's heartbreaking for him, but also terrifying for what he's capable of, and he displays no boundaries.

No matter how Magazine Dreams ends, it's tragic. Society doesn't provide enough resources to care for people like Killian, and left to his own devices he's only choosing between options that will all lead to negative outcomes for himself and/or others.

Magazine Dreams is a raw portrait of a unique character. It offers no easy answers, but it is worthwhile to get to know Killian and experience the sides of him Majors brings to life.

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Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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