Indie filmmaker Gerard Johnson isn’t content with making simple crime movies. His work to date has blended the genre with other elements, crossing into wider arthouse ideas. With psychological thriller Muscle, he casts his directorial gaze upon gym culture and the toxic masculinity that can come with it. The plot follows Simon (Cavan Clerkin), a schlubby call-centre worker stuck in a rut. In an attempt to better himself, he joins the local gym where he meets Terry (Craig Fairbrass), an intimidating personal trainer who offers Simon a helping hand. They strike up an unlikely friendship, but it soon becomes apparent that all is not what it seems.
Shot in black and white with an air of mystery throughout, Johnson establishes an almost Hitchcockian style that offers a strange but satisfying juxtaposition with the gritty London dialect. The stirring score emphasises the intrigue as Terry’s testosterone heavy influence takes effect on Simon, seeping into his deep-set anxieties and insecurities. Playing with the ‘look good, feel good’ mentality that is sold to us in today’s increasingly health conscious society, the narrative smartly weaves these themes into the intimate tale of two flawed individuals.
The nature of the two-hander story means that Clerkin and Fairbrass are relied upon to do a lot of heavy lifting both literally and metaphorically. The former is a relatable protagonist; fed up and lethargic, drinking a little too much and looking for a new lease of life. The latter is an absolute powerhouse; confident, handsome, and oozing with energy. Both performances are great, with the pair conjuring up tension as their complex friendship develops.
Using his nuanced black comedy style and arthouse finesse, Johnson has crafted a well-measured character study that weighs in on the dangerous toxicity of fragile masculinity. Gripping yet thoughtful, Muscle is a cinematic showcase of brains and brawn.