▶︎ Muscle is in UK cinemas and to rent on digital platforms including BFI Player from 4 December 2020, on digital download from 18 January 2021 and on Blu-ray and DVD from 1 February 2021.

Stuck in a depressing telesales job, spending every night in the pub, and slowly drifting apart from his frustrated girlfriend, Simon (Cavan Clerkin) is a man in dire need of a change. “You’re happy to moan and groan instead of changing things. You’re pathetic,” his girlfriend Sarah (Polly Maberly) complains, which might be what prompts Simon to walk into the Atlantis gym on a whim one afternoon, paying up front for a six-month membership in the hope of getting fit.

“Fuck fit. You want to get big, and you want to get strong” is the no-nonsense advice he receives from Terry (Craig Fairbrass), the personal trainer who takes Simon under his wing and is as good as his word, transforming the tubby Simon into a burly, bearded beast. But Terry’s influence over his new friend won’t end there.

The song Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I over the opening credits sets the tone. Muscle is a film about the gap between the man Simon is and the man he thinks he should be, and Gerard Johnson’s third feature is a welcome change of pace after the stylish but hollow violence of Hyena (2014). Muscle is a twisted black comedy exploring questions of masculinity and insecurity, with echoes of Fight Club (1999) in the central relationship, as alpha-male Terry takes over and destroys Simon’s life and his sense of self.

After two films set in London, Johnson has moved to Newcastle for Muscle, and while he doesn’t make much of this new environment cinematically (with most of the film taking place in either the gym or Simon’s home), Stuart Bentley’s crisp black-and-white cinematography and the evocative score from The The (the band led by Johnson’s brother Matt) has helped him craft a striking and atmospheric piece of work that crackles with tension, for the first half at least.

Craig Fairbrass as Terry in Muscle

A veteran of the straight-to-DVD British crime thriller, Fairbrass is often asked to bring nothing more than hulking menace to a film, but the role of Terry allows him to simultaneously play up to his hardman image and subvert it. Terry flits between aggression and affability, encouragement and criticism, as he locates all of Simon’s weak points and pushes him into the corners where he wants him to be. He is a skilled manipulator, but he can also come off as an unhinged and obsessive rage case, capable of losing control at any moment, and Fairbrass handles these abrupt gear changes with gusto, delivering a commanding and often hilarious performance. Terry mutters darkly about his violent past, saying things like “I should write a book… mind you, I’d get a life sentence for Chapter Five alone,” but all of this is lapped up by Simon, who is simultaneously fearful of and attracted to his mentor’s strength and confidence. Cavan Clerkin is the perfect foil for Fairbrass, making Simon both an exasperating and sympathetic figure, and while other minor characters figure in the film, Muscle is essentially a two-hander, resting on the warped and ever-shifting dynamic between these men.

Johnson has a keen eye and ear for performative machismo and the rituals of male-dominated spaces. This is true not only of the gym but of Simon’s call centre workspace, where successful sales result in much strutting and hollering, and where a steroid-fuelled Simon later flips out angrily after a downturn in fortunes. The director also has a lot of fun playing with the homoerotic subtext of bodybuilding; when Terry first introduces steroids into the workout he offers Simon his “man juice”, and Muscle also boasts the most suggestive ice lolly sucking since Inherent Vice (2014).

Craig Fairbrass as Terry in Muscle

The downside to all of this male posturing is that Johnson can’t find much room for women in his film. Lorraine Burroughs briefly brings an appealing energy to it as Terry’s friend Crystal, but the film could have used more of Sarah, who acts as a valuable voice of scepticism and reason in the first half of the movie, before quickly disappearing from it.

The other disappointment is that Johnson doesn’t seem to know how to bring his story to a close. The last half hour is the most plot-driven portion of Muscle, with Terry pressing the reluctant but cowed Simon into a foolhardy criminal act, but it’s also where Johnson’s writing is the least convincing. The final act is tense but late revelations about Terry’s identity, and the police response to it, are clumsily handled, and it feels like the film needs a climactic confrontation between the two men.

Instead, Muscle is allowed to drift ambiguously and unsatisfyingly to its ending, although there is a poignant poetry in the repeated image of Simon gazing at himself in the mirror, contemplating his destructive choices and wondering what kind of man he has become.

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Originally published: 28 October 2019