Muscle: Uncomfortably amusing and scary look at toxic masculinity

If there’s one facet of the contemporary British film industry that I could designate as being somewhat shameful, it’s that writer-director Gerard Johnson is still operating at a relative level of obscurity. Debuting in 2009 with the darkly hilarious and thoroughly messed-up Tony (a film partially inspired by notorious serial killer Dennis Nilsen), Johnson followed up with 2014’s stylish and fiercely gritty police corruption thriller Hyena. Both movies have a grim and punchy aesthetic and are bolstered by excellent performances from leading man Peter Ferdinando and solid supporting casts, yet they appear to find themselves relegated to the fandom of intensive crime cinema enthusiasts. Perhaps that’ll change with the advent of his intriguing latest feature.

Muscle, a film that initially screened at the BFI Film Festival last year and has only just been released on VOD (owing to, y’know, the whole world-wide disease thing), is a visually striking, funny, bizarre and intelligently perturbing look at the world of bodybuilding and a subculture of dangerously dysfunctional hypermasculinity that sometimes goes along with it.

Simon (Cavan Clerkin) is a deeply frustrated telemarketer going nowhere fast in life. Stuck in a dead-end rut of meaningless scoreboards, cliche-spouting management and difficult customers, Simon usually spends his downtime at the pub with colleagues or indulging in a terrible diet, both of which compound his already mediocre self-esteem and result in long periods of staring at his lacklustre physique in the mirror. These pitiful circumstances are worsened by his tension-fraught, moribund relationship with girlfriend Sarah (Polly Maberly), her thinly-veiled contempt for Simon communicated with an icy aversion to intimacy and passive-aggressive quips. The poor bastard can’t keep himself from crying during his daily walk to work.

As he leaves home one indistinguishable morning for more drudgework, Simon is taken aback at the sight of a tall and obscenely-muscled gentleman emerging from a side-door. Catching sight of a sign that reads ‘Atlantis Gym & Solarium’, Simon is unable to resist the impulse to go upstairs and sign up for a membership. Undeterred by the indifference of those around him, he is determined to eradicate his poor lifestyle and get fit and healthy, a decision that leads him to a chance meeting with long-time gym denizen Terry (Craig Fairbrass). A towering brick shithouse, Terry’s intimidating build is supplemented by an aggressive and unnerving friendliness that catches the ineffectual Simon off-guard. Taking a liking to our hero’s straightforward modesty and desire to improve, Terry offers his services as a personal trainer-cum-life mentor. Little does Simon know that this new friendship will envelop him in a world of psychopathic machismo where obsession, salacious sex, capriciousness of character and even organised crime are all in the game.

Cavan Clerkin puts in terrific work as our downtrodden main man Simon, a relatively nice bloke who is sick and tired of feeling like a loser. His measured performance effectively conveys pathos as he juggles self-loathing and resentment with the urge to snap himself into a new plane of mental and physical well-being. You can only squirm in discomfort as Sarah spurns Simon’s affections and mockingly refers to him as ‘Action Man’ when he forlornly surveys his paunch and unremarkable musculature. Anyone who has been at a consistent low ebb (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?) will find resonance in Simon’s wounded ego that nevertheless retains a spark of determination.

As commendable as Muscle‘s lead performance assuredly is, the man of the hour here is undoubtedly Craig Fairbrass. Known to most viewers for his stints in Eastenders, London’s Burning and a slew of direct-to-DVD English gangland fare, Fairbrass demonstrates a range that isn’t immediately apparent with the likes of the Rise of the Footsoldier franchise. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a fan to tell you the truth as I maintain a soft-spot for high-octane and ridiculously blokey crime flicks (although the Footsoldier films leave a lot to be desired for me), Fairbrass being a notable mainstay who always articulates pointed authenticity in his portrayal of big, colourful characters who initially seem like entertaining company, right before they turn on a sixpence and lay waste to someone for a wrong look. The principal facet that distinguishes the character of Terry from, say, Pat Tate in RotF, is that he comes with a philosophy, and it’s this component that allows Fairbrass to display his aptitude in psychological thriller territory.

Terry is essentially an understated parody amalgamation of all of the worst stereotypes of men. Ludicrously big and strong and given to brutal violence (related in ostentatious anecdotes to other gym rats as opposed to garishly adorning the screen), Terry asserts that women are only good for casual sex and that there isn’t a situation that cannot be solved by destructively losing your rag. This unhinged masculinism betrays unhealthy insecurities that go back to poor parenting and a murky military career, Terry feeling enraged and betrayed if Simon skips one workout session to go for a pint and also revealing some startlingly ambiguous behaviour in terms of his sexuality. A lot of the dialogue is infused with pitch-black humour that provides a stage for Fairbrass to deftly satirise the kind of characters that he has become associated with, and it’s an understatement to proclaim that he was practically moulded for the part.

Stuart Bentley’s minimalist black-and-white cinematography and a ferocious score by Matt Johnson (Gerard’s brother and the driving force behind English post-punk titans The The) imbue the film with a necessarily suffocating atmosphere. Terry and his associates constitute a nightmare of soulless hedonism and pushiness that sees poor Simon gripped in a doom-laden torpor, constantly wondering if he is worse-off in this new world than in his previous existence as a lonely and weak loser. Traversing little more than the confines of the gym and Simon’s home, Terry begins to feel like a tyrannical spectre as he bombards Simon with his insane brand of motivation, encouraging profane visualisations for workout rages, steroids, orgiastic parties and eyebrow-raising criminal endeavours. The film is also padded with unpredictable and fine-drawn commentary on faux-matey bullying that occurs in intensely ‘laddish’ circles, and it’s an element that deserves applause for the anger that it inspires.

With an uncanny, slow-burning atmosphere that is driven by the two focal performances, Muscle eschews predictable scenes of extreme violence and garden-variety-crime-film developments to deliver us a creepy, quasi-surreal, inappropriately hilarious and shocking document of testosterone-gone-wild. It’s one of the better films about men’s cultural norms to be released in a long time and, contrary to opinions I’ve seen from a host of other viewers, its controversial denouement is the perfectly provocative icing on the cake. It deserves wide exposure and will hopefully put Johnson on a larger map, so hop onto the nearest streaming platform and get stuck in.

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