A move to the North East isn’t working out as Londoner Simon (Cavan Clerkin) had hoped. The combination of a dire telesales job and increasing distance between him and girlfriend Sarah (Polly Maberly) sends his confidence plummeting to all time low. On a whim, he decides to join a gym to get himself back in shape – not one of those shiny, smiley chains but a more traditional, all-male establishment. And he gets himself a trainer, who takes him on as a personal project.
Who hasn’t joined a gym for similar reasons? And given up after a few sessions? That’s simply not allowed by Simon’s trainer, Terry (Craig Fairbrass), who starts out as being just in charge of his fitness plan but soon has obvious designs on controlling his entire life, taking it in a sinister and suspect direction. The premise of Muscle, director Gerard Johnson’s latest uncompromising offering has an initial familiarity about it, until it crosses the line to become an unsettling psychological thriller, with roots in a Hollywood classic or two. And the signs are there from early on, even though the ever-compliant Simon can’t see them until it’s pretty much too late.
In a film that reeks of toxic masculinity, Johnson presents us with a character who exemplifies it to the max. Terry is controlling, a misogynist and a racist, but his beefy appearance belies a subtlety rooted in an insidious passive aggression. And he knows exactly how to cover his tracks, coming up with credible explanations for his behaviour that Simon accepts all too easily. Simon is easy prey for somebody like Terry who becomes his house mate as well as his trainer. There’s no escape, from his menacing form or the regime he imposes, with Simon’s shape changing and expanding over the first half of the film, as he adopts the look – shaven heads, impressive beards – favoured by all the other members of the gym. His life has been taken over completely and there’s no room for anything, or anyone, else.
As ever, Johnson refuses to pull any punches when it comes to the Terry’s physical and psychological capabilities. Nor does he allow us to escape the irony of a smooth talking salesman like Simon falling for Terry’s manipulative ways, always being coerced into doing things that he knows in his gut aren’t right. All those interiors, from Simon’s house and office, and a gym so realistic you can almost smell the sweat, and frequent close ups add up to an overpoweringly oppressive atmosphere. Some relief comes in the form of landscapes and shots of grass waving in the wind, but even when it’s at its most striking, the black and white photography is always tinged with menace and a certain grime.
Despite shades of Misery and even Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Muscle is still very much in the tradition of the gritty British thriller, but one with an unerring ability to get right under your skin. Two excellent central performances from Clerkin as the easily manipulated Simon and Fairbrass – instantly bad news as soon as he appears on screen – make it a compelling, even if there are moments when you’d prefer to look away from the screen. It isn’t an easy watch – Gerard Johnson doesn’t go in for that – but it’s always a gripping one.
Thriller | Cert: 18 | Dazzler Media | Cinemas and digital | 4 December 2020 | Dir. Gerard Johnson | Cavan Clerkin, Craig Fairbrass, Polly Maberly, Lorraine Burroughs, Peter Ferdinando.