Writer and Director: Gerard Johnson
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
A film about a male mid-life crisis, a new-found desire to go to the gym and the latent violence in all of us may not sound like a winner and in a year in which the representation of female film-makers at the London Film Festival has reached 40%, Muscle may even sound entirely out of place. But Gerard Johnson’s film is a smart and intriguing examination of male mental health, toxic masculinity and the failure of social expectation cast as a classy and knowingly funny psycho-thriller.
Simon is an ordinary office worker in a sales job he hates. Performing poorly at work and going home to a wife who can barely look at him, on a sudden impulse he joins a non-brand gym in the hope of improving his fitness. There he meets Terry, a personal trainer who offers to get him into shape, working out together several times a week. But when Simon’s wife leaves him, Terry makes his way into their home and soon starts to dominate Simon’s life.
Muscle is essentially a version of Single White Female for men, a creepy story in which a browbeaten man finds his entire existence dominated by a hastily-formed friendship with a man he knows next to nothing about. As a writer Johnson has created this intense dialogue for Terry with a hard-boiled quality that oozes underlying aggression but with a purposeful comic effect – Craig Fairbrass’s Terry telling Simon he’s going to “get ripped like a bastard” and later having a serious macho conversation while they both eat mini-milks are among the Festival’s best moments.
Johnson, whose film has been15-years in the planning, opts for black and white which creates the stripped-back but grimy tone of the film where you see the sweat and oily dirt of the gym equipment as well as the spiralling chaos in Simon’s home. The tone is very particular, treading the line between disorientating thriller and humour while asking thoughtful questions about modern masculinity and associations of violence that plague even the mild-mannered Simon after a few training sessions.
And in the style of Muscle, Johnson, his brother Matt who provides the intense score and cinematographer Stuart Bentley look both to those gritty films of the 1960s with menacing overtones such as The Servant and Repulsion, as well as the more physical sports movies using intense close-up so the audience can feel every punch. The industrial and brutalist architecture of Newcastle is as much a feature of Muscle as the soulless domestic interior of Simon’s home.
Leading the cast, Cavan Clerkin is excellent as Simon who early in the film creates a sense of a man struggling to manage the everyday grind and looking for an escape. With a 12-week break to bulk-up, as the film moves in an unexpected direction Clerkin charts Simon’s increased self-confidence but slowly introduces a growing paranoia, one that suggests underneath it all that Simon is still the nice guy we met at the start.
Craig Fairbrass has a great time playing Terry, a character designed to provoke and tempt Simon, while essentially gaslighting him in order to gain access to his home. Fairbrass has a lot of the funny moments, playing with his own henchman image in earlier films while using the sparse but expletive-filled dialogue to present an unpredictable character with few limits.
Johnson’s film gets carried away in the middle with some graphic party scenes with a lot of unnecessarily naked women – a similar issue to Ben Wheatley’s High Rise which has a similar tone – and there could be a little more for Polly Maberly to do as Simon’s wife, but Muscle is a pleasant surprise, one that makes you wonder what the future of masculinity should look like and how easily any of us might snap.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October