A cautionary tale for anyone considering joining a gym in January to work off the excesses of the holiday season, Muscle is a darkly funny psychological thriller that feels at times like a low-budget British cousin of Fight Club. Director Gerard Johnson previously explored London’s brutal criminal underbelly in Tony (2009) and Hyena (2014). This time his setting is the northern English city of Newcastle, the violence more submerged, and the overall tenor more grimly comic, probing the swamp of toxic masculinity and the psychosexual extremism that often lurks within it.
Tonally reminiscent of cult British director Ben Wheatley’s comedy horror thrillers in places, Muscle had its European premiere at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn last month, where leading man Cavan Clerkin won the Best Actor prize for a committed performance that entailed a three-month mid-shoot break while he undertook intense bodybuilding sessions. Strong acting, a grippingly strange plot and stylish monochrome visuals should help secure Johnson’s third feature some kind of theatrical afterlife beyond the festival circuit, even though he wobbles a little in the final act with an underpowered dramatic payoff.
Muscle stars Clerkin as Simon, a 40-ish displaced Londoner living a life of quiet desperation in the nondescript suburbs of Newcastle. Simon is stuck in a soul-crushing telephone sales job that is basically a borderline criminal scam, where bosses brainwash workers with vapid inspirational slogans like “fear of loss is greater than the need for gain.” Inspired by Johnson’s own work experience, these office scenes are savagely funny and inescapably evocative of David Mamet.
Simon is too emotionally drained by his job to notice his neglected girlfriend, Sarah (Polly Maberly), slowly coming to detest him and their joyless life together. Soon after signing up for self-improvement at a shabby inner-city gym, he returns home to find Sarah has left him. Unwisely, Simon leans for emotional support on Terry (Craig Fairbrass), the mountainous personal trainer who has made it his mission to transform his new client’s flabby body into a steroid-pumped suit of armor-plated muscle, much like his own. Intrusive and insistent, Terry is clearly a Machiavellian stalker with sinister motives, but Fairbrass makes him a persuasively charismatic anti-hero on screen, his garrulous charm backed up by passive-aggressive menace.
As he rebuilds his tattered self-esteem by bulking up at the gym, Simon initially warms to Terry. But their relationship turns increasingly coercive after Terry inveigles his way into living at Simon’s house, where he invites gangs of dubious lowlife friends and hosts wild, druggy sex parties. Dropping dark clues about his convict past and atrocities he committed while serving in the army, Terry’s constant low-level gaslighting and bullying, sexually charged behavior eventually pushes Simon to the brink of mental breakdown.
Fruitfully blending thriller, comedy and horror elements, Muscle is essentially a two-hander set in a claustrophobic, ultra-masculine world. Fairbrass and Clerkin both give solid performances, with the latter making a bold physical transformation. The plot is compellingly cryptic for most of its span, although Johnson’s firm narrative grasp slackens during the finale, ending on an opaque impasse rather than the explosive showdown that these testosterone-crazed antagonists deserve. Enticing hints of double identities, cracked psyches, unspoken homoerotic urges and serious criminal schemes are left frustratingly vague.
Cinematographer Stuart Bentley clothes Muscle in poetically gritty monochrome, accentuating the vintage British social-realist lineage of the setting to positive effect. Another classy touch is the discordant, unsettling electro-blues score by veteran English art-rock band The The, founded and fronted by the director’s brother Matt Johnson. A set-piece orgy scene, filmed using a cast of real swingers, has an agreeably nightmarish intensity but its sexually explicit nature will likely require cuts in some markets.
Venue: Black Nights film festival, Tallinn
Production companies: Stigma Films, Hook Pictures, Logical Pictures, West End Films
Cast: Cavan Clerkin, Craig Fairbrass, Polly Maberly, Lorraine Burroughs
Director-screenwriter: Gerard Johnson
Producers: Matthew James Wilkinson, Ed Barratt, Richard Wylie, Eric Tavitian, Fred Fiore
Cinematographer: Stuart Bentley
Editor: Ian Davies
Music: The The
Sales company: Westend Films, London