The photo was released weeks ahead of time. The photo.
If you’ve been paying attention to the Sundance Film Festival, you’ve definitely seen it. Even if you haven’t, the photo has spread with such impressed, blushing, and astonished frenzy throughout social media and entertainment news websites that there’s a high likelihood that it’s made its way in front of your eyes—and you gasped (and maybe even leered a bit) in response.
It’s the preview image of actor Jonathan Majors in the film Magazine Dreams, which premiered at Sundance and, both on the ground in Park City and in the discourse happening online, ranks among the most talked-about movies at this year’s event. (Its premiere on Friday evening had one of the longest lines of patrons hoping to score last-minute tickets that I’ve seen in my years of covering this festival.)
In the image that was provided to the press to promote Magazine Dreams, we get the first look at Majors, an actor best known for his roles in the HBO series Lovecraft Country and the Netflix film Da 5 Bloods, as an aspiring bodybuilder.
He is in a side profile, artfully lit by chandeliers in an otherwise dark room. The glow bounces off—no, glistens on—his incredible muscles: a flicker off the top curve of his first (of about eight) perfectly rounded abs; a spotlight on a trapezius that rivals geometric perfection. The dark suggestion of a cloth that are the briefs he’s wearing nearly matches his skin tone, giving the illusion that he’s nude and inviting you to gaze not-so-chastely at his glutes.
It is a photo presenting an Adonis to be admired, to lust after, to be in awe and in pity of; we’ve been through these kinds of actor transformations enough times before to know that a body like this causing a stir on the level of this does not happen without grueling, borderline abusive discipline, training, and withholding. It worked wonders: Magazine Dreams shot to the top of everyone’s must-see Sundance list.
There was a glee taken in fetishizing the photo, leading to anticipation for the kind of film people thought it was selling: a voyeur’s look into the world of bodybuilding, and a fascinating glimpse into a mysterious community and lifestyle—with the added bonus of looking at these kinds of hot bodies throughout the runtime. Magazine Dreams, however, is something so much darker and, for many people, unexpected. That’s both its brilliance and its difficulty.
Magazine Dreams is a punishing watch, an intense and intensely tragic story about a man’s obsession that is born out of trauma, and which is partly to blame for why he can’t escape it.
Majors’ transformation into Killian Maddox is a physical feat that, as we see throughout the film, is stripped of any glamor or sensuality we may have assigned when teased with that press photo; it is an exercise in brutality, self-flagellation, and disrespect for one’s own health. It’s a jarring and heartbreaking—borderline disturbing, even—physical journey. But it’s one that is outmatched by Majors’ disappearance into a tortured, vulnerable, desperate, and well-meaning man, undone by a recklessness he can’t control and that the circumstances of his life fosters.
The rippled body we see, and see often, early in the film is a mask for the quiet, bruised soul, who lives with his Vietnam veteran grandfather and works bagging groceries in between strenuous workouts. Killian tries to follow the steps to actualize a life that he thinks he wants: looking out for his grandfather, putting himself out there to ask a crush on a date, and corresponding with his bodybuilding idol, confiding in him about his struggles and achievements on his path to, hopefully, being a champion himself.
But it’s the classic, despicable truth: There are people for whom the American Dream is defeated by the American Nightmare. The film doesn’t assign blame for that, because the blame lies everywhere and with everyone, including Killian himself. An unspeakable family horror may have set him on his destructive path. But so did his socioeconomic status, his race, and his possible mental illness. His bodybuilding gives him purpose. His steroids and cocaine habit, to increase his gains, makes him unstable.
Magazine Dreams endears you to Killian, which makes it almost unbearably painful to watch him circle down a never-ending, repeating spiral of debilitating, violent, life-ruining episodes. The setbacks are incessant and unspeakably violent. When it all finally boils over from within Killian, Magazine Dreams erupts with complex, bleak, and unanswerable ideas about status, fate, hopelessness, and everything from incel behavior to police misconduct. It’s a lot. So much for gazing at hot muscle dudes.
It’s fascinating to have seen these two things become twin pillar talking points for Magazine Dreams: that first photo, and the Joker-esque nature of the film itself.
It’s not exactly a bait-and-switch, because those two elements are in conversation with each other: what we presume when we see a chiseled body like Majors’ in the photo, and the reality of a person whose life is consumed by that physical goal.
We were never purely objectifying Majors in that tease—though, after watching the film, that guilt may arise. The photo was released with the purpose of drumming up publicity. The crux of the press push for the film has been centered around that physique and what it took to achieve it. The people involved with Magazine Dreams want it to be a talking point. They are offering it up. No one is Woodward and Bernstein-ing how many calories a day Majors ate to get into that shape. We know that it’s 6,100 because they want us to know.
The conversation now is a rewarding evolution of that. Our curiosity was spiked by the superficiality of looking at that body. Now it’s amplified—and complicated—by an understanding of the brutality that underscores the reality beneath it.