He might not have been getting the love and praise that some of his peers receive, but writer-director Gerard Johnson has been doing some truly outstanding work over the past two decades. His debut feature, Tony, is a hell of a film that you could easily double-bill with Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer if you want an Anglo-American pairing of films about killers that will make you want to bathe in bleach once they're finished. He then waited five years to deliver the astonishing, and all-too-often sorely overlooked, Hyena. It's been another five years. And Muscle is worth the wait. Although I'd prefer to not have to wait ANOTHER five years for the next Johnson movie.
Cavan Clerkin plays Simon, a guy with a depressing phone job, a relationship with his girlfriend that he doesn't realise is going very sour, and no real idea of how to turn his life around. He joins a local gym, and that is where he meets Terry (Craig Fairbrass). After some initial exchanges that have him doubting his decision, Simon eventually agrees to let Terry train him. The two grow close, seeming to become firm friends, and then Terry needs a place to stay, the training becomes more intense, and tempers rise as a potential dream looks set to transform into a nightmare.
Johnson has, in every one of his three feature films, explored various aspects of toxic masculinity (embodied by a secondary character in Tony, then intertwined with a culture steeped in violence and high pressure in Hyena), and Muscle has it brazenly front and centre for most of the runtime. It almost feels, at this point, like the culmination of his film-making obsession, and it makes the film an incredible, and incredibly uncomfortable, watch.
The gym environment is, of course, a perfect setting for exploring this subject. Simon doesn't head along to any big, shiny, national chain. He finds a small gym that seems to be populated only by men, making himself more nervous and applying more pressure before he's even started to train properly. Any gym is an intimidating space. One full of burly men who know what they're doing, where Craig Fairbrass can suddenly loom over you and check your form . . . well, that is already the idea of hell for some people.
Johnson directs with his usual confidence, infusing the scenes with a high energy when necessary and happy to hold the camera on the actors being still when that is equally necessary. The whole film has a palpable sense of violence just simmering under the surface, although you end up seeing more content tied to sexual acts than outright violence, and Johnson moves perfectly from one level of unease to the next, all the way up to a third act that pulls out the stops.
It helps that the main actors here are unafraid to go wherever the story takes them. Clerkin is superb, and absolutely transforms himself after the opening few scenes. Lorraine Burroughs is very good as Crystal, a woman who also ends up in Simon's life after Terry brings more and more shady people into Simon's life and home. Then you have Fairbrass, a man probably still best known to many people either for his main TV roles and his ongoing appearances in many British gangster flicks (half of them seemingly revolving around "the Range Rover murders" of 1995). To say that his turn here is revelatory is not hyperbole. It's the best performance I have seen from him, and he knows exactly how to play things in every scene, whether he's being aggressive or acting vulnerable. There's also a small role for Peter Ferdinando, a regular collaborator with Johnson, and you have solid supporting turns from Polly Maberly, Mark Stobbart, and one or two others.
Muscle may not be QUITE as good as Johnson's previous two features, but that is almost as much to do with how good those films are as it is to do with any small negatives here (mainly some moments in the third act that become a little frustrating as some details are kept hidden away from viewers). Much like Hyena, there's a lot to unpack here as the end credits roll, and rewatches may even lead to you changing your mind on the meaning of the film. I view that as a mark of success.
|L - R: Peter Ferdinando, me, Gerard Johnson, and . . . a super-lovely colleague/friend of Johnson whose name I have gone blank on, and can only apologise. Pic taken when Hyena was shown at EIFF.|