Actors are in the business of transformation. They take on new accents, spend hours getting prosthetics applied, gain and lose weight, all in the name of becoming their latest character. For male actors in particular, much is often made of their bodily makeovers. Want to win an Oscar? Look to Christian Bale in The Fighter or Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. Want to star in the next big blockbuster? Become the next comic-book superhero? Then go the route of John Krasinski, Kumail Nanjiani, or Chris Pratt. 

This year, Dallas’s own Jonathan Majors will be flexing his range and his muscles, making the most of a bulked-up physique to embody three wildly different roles. In February, he’ll make his Marvel film debut as Kang the Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, before starring opposite Michael B. Jordan in Creed III as Damian, a troubled boxer and former childhood friend of Adonis Creed. But first, Majors returned to Sundance—where he first broke out in 2019 for his impressive performance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco—for the world premiere of indie Magazine Dreams

Written and directed by Elijah Bynum of Hot Summer Nights, Magazine Dreams is an intense character study with a focus so all-consuming, it’s almost claustrophobic. It follows Killian Maddox, a troubled amateur bodybuilder whose dreams to turn pro push him to the point of self-destruction. 

From the first minutes of the film, Bynum prepares us for a story full of jarring contrasts. We first see Killian onstage, running through various bodybuilding poses as a golden glow washes over him. We take in his physique, the precise sculpture of his muscles, and then, seconds later, we’re snapped into reality: here is Killian in harsh, fluorescent lighting, sitting opposite his court-appointed therapist (fellow Texan Harriet Sansom Harris). 

We’re never told exactly what landed Killian in counseling, but it’s not long before we can imagine why he’s here. Killian’s isolation is palpable. Though he takes care of his aging grandfather (Harrison Page), he spends most of his time alone, training at the gym, lifting in the garage, or writing unanswered letters to professional bodybuilder Brad Vanderhorn (Mike O’Hearn), a former Mr. Olympia. In his room, the walls are covered with posters and glossy magazine spreads of other bodybuilders, and while his focus is clear, it’s also obvious that his solitary nature isn’t entirely intentional. 

He tries to connect. Time and time again, though, people either misunderstand him or simply don’t take him seriously, laughing at his sincerity. He posts videos of his progress online, which are often met with ridicule in the comments section. And when he plucks up the courage to ask out Jessie (Haley Bennett), the cute cashier at the local grocery store, their subsequent date is a slow-motion car crash. Even before they have a chance to order, Killian unceremoniously trauma-dumps his past on her. Then, without giving her a chance to absorb this information, he dives into an increasingly intense monologue about his goals, telling her, “If you’re not in one hundred percent, you will never be successful. . . . [Bodybuilding] is the most important thing I will ever do. You have to do something big or important or else no one will remember you when you’re dead.” Not long after, Jessie excuses herself to go to the bathroom and never returns. 

The film is a difficult watch, as Bynum delivers Killian blow after blow. He lives his life through a fractured lens. There’s the renowned athlete he wants to be and the lonely live wire he really is. That distortion leaves the film feeling as surreal and visceral as a nightmare, as off-kilter as Taxi Driver or American Psycho. In order to play Killian, Majors expertly walks on a razor’s edge. He loses himself in Killian’s anger, explosive and ugly. But he also lends the character an earnestness that makes him impossible to condemn. Even in Killian’s fits of rage or quiet disconnection, Majors shows us a man who is broken but heartbreakingly human. 

Killian’s tenuous grip on reality continues to degrade, with each interaction pushing him further and further to the fringes. Bynum wields Killian’s ambition like a weapon, constantly hurting him and anyone who comes into his orbit. There are also repeated reminders that Killian’s body takes on different meanings in different settings. Onstage, it can be commanding, worthy of praise. But out in the world, Killian is a six-foot-one, 245-pound Black man, and to the man who calls him an ape, or to the cops who later pin him to the ground, the body for which he’s worked so hard is nothing more than a threat. As it becomes harder to tell just how far Killian will go to get what he wants, the audience is left bracing for impact.

The timing of this role is poetic in the context of Majors’s upcoming projects. Over the last several years, there’s been a growing conversation surrounding the lengths male action stars will go to prepare for their next major roles. Though they’re often still praised, there’s been an increased awareness about the harsh reality that goes along with their preparations: the restrictive diets, the excessive workouts, and the not-uncommon use of performance-enhancing drugs. Stars have become increasingly comfortable opening up about the negative aspects of their transformations. Following his role in 2021’s Eternals, for example, Nanjiani spoke candidly about how the ensuing attention and scrutiny surrounding his physique and the pressure to maintain it led him to therapy to confront his body dysmorphia. And last year, Zac Efron told Men’s Health that he developed insomnia and fell into a depression after training for 2017’s Baywatch that lasted months after filming wrapped.

As Majors has begun making the rounds with the press at the start of a breakout year, he’s been up-front about the toll such roles, specifically the one in Magazine Dreams, have taken on him.

Becoming Killian meant eating seven square meals a day, amounting to more than six thousand calories, while completing a grueling training schedule of three daily workouts. “You don’t have anybody around you when you’re working out,” he told Deadline. “You are pacing up and down your apartment, force-feeding yourself the food you need to grow. That isolation and physical commitment does breed a certain amount of emotionality, and distance.” 

Calling the bodybuilding the hardest thing he’s ever done, Majors also spoke about the crushing isolation he found in Killian’s pursuits. “For the character, the frustration is I can do something most men cannot do, and yet, there’s no real value there.” Majors’s transformation for Magazine Dreams is undoubtedly impressive, but more than that, it’s a cautionary tale.