Director – Gerard Johnson – 2019 – UK – Cert. 18 – 110m
Pump it up! A man dissatisfied with his life comes under the influence of a manipulative bodybuilding trainer – on Sky and NOW from Tuesday, June 1st
Newcastle, UK. Simon (Cavan Clerkin) is at a dead end working days in a dodgy telesales job he hates and coming home at night to his partner Sarah (Polly Maberly) who no longer loves him. Whatever attracted her to him has gone. Looking for a way to move forward, Simon sees a man walk confidently out of a doorway and on realising it’s a local gym, decides to join. It’s not long before he’s under the influence of fellow member Terry (Craig Fairbrass), an ex-forces type who takes him under his wing as a personal trainer to help him transform his body. Under Terry’s influence, Simon changes his diet, reduces his drinking with colleagues to virtually nil and is suddenly achieving top sales at work. None of that is enough to stop Sarah leaving him.
Terry is however not what he initially seems. He suggests first he then his friend Crystal (Lorraine Burroughs) move into Simon’s house to help pay the bills then instigates increasingly orgiastic parties with his friends as if the place was his own. (Be advised, there’s an orgy scene containing some pretty explicit, actual rather than simulated, sex scenes.) He is slowly invading Simon’s physical and indeed mental space. Terry gives Simon work delivering boxes. Simon never asks what’s in the boxes, but eventually overhears Terry talking downstairs with mates about what a mug Simon is. Then Simon proposes a big job driving a shipment down to Dover. Which turns out to mean taking it across the channel into France and bringing another shipment back…
Cinematographer Stuart Bentley shoots director Johnson’s images in gorgeous, stark black and white which somehow seems to simplify everything, reducing the world to binary. When Terry encourages Simon to channel his hate for his ex, it almost seems to make more sense than the heartbreak Simon claims to experience. Sarah has talked of life up North getting her nowhere compared to her previous experience in London, and this is bolstered in Johnson’s vision by the alternating brutalist architecture, ruthless, modern, functionalist workplace and uninspiring, contemporary, British housing estate home interiors. An eerie, suitably alienating score by Gerard’s brother Matt, better known as the driving force behind post-punk phenomenon The The, adds still further to the piece’s unsettling atmosphere overall.
At the centre of the proceedings is the bodybuilding imagery, with Simon going from ordinary man without direction via endorphin-hooked, workout addict to victim of mental manipulation. Numerous scenes show Simon and/or Terry exercising in the cramped gym. Simon’s telesales work suffers as he starts to lose control and throws a violent fit on the cramped shop floor. As he becomes increasingly dependent on Terry. Simon loses touch with not only his partner but also Ronnie (Mark Stobbart), his work colleague and drinking buddy.
Clerkin is tremendous as the man who transforms his body whilst simultaneously becoming the fall guy; Fairbrass, best known for playing the gangster protagonist in the Rise Of The Footsoldier franchise, here delivers what may well be a career best performance as the manipulative Terry, a role he makes so completely his own it’s hard to imagine another actor playing it.
To describe this as a low life British crime film doesn’t really do it justice: it’s more about a man adrift in modern day Britain seeking some sort of identity that makes sense to him, latching on to some unwise influences and coming completely unstuck. The ending is true to that vision, but doesn’t feel quite so satisfactory. Nevertheless, Muscle is just what we need with Covid-19 in full swing and Brexit just around the corner. The whole thing is filtered through bodybuilding imagery, striking black and white photography and a disquieting score.
Muscle is out in cinemas and on BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, iTunes, Sky Store, Virgin and other VoD platforms from Friday, December 4th; digital download from Monday, January 18th; Blu-ray and DVD from Monday, February 1st.
On Sky and NOW from Tuesday, June 1st
BFI London Film Festival