Muscle (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2020

Ground down by a job he hates, in a loveless relationship, Simon seeks a change in lifestyle from a local gym – instead finding Terry.

Muscle review: how not to build a man | Sight & Sound | BFI

A schlubby wet lettuce working in telesales, Simon (Cavan Clerkin) is left bitterly lethargic, not keen to just ‘get some coke’ as a colleague suggests. That’s when he walks into Atlantics Gym and pays for 6 months up front despite the intimidating jeers of the beefy clientele. Shot in black and white, with a droning synth score by The The, there is an artistic edge to this testosterone soaked thriller. The focus on the overly ripped men and their bulging physique creates a church of masculinity for Simon to refocus his ideals, if he fixes this everything else might just fall into place.

Ex-military Terry sniffs out his desperation and in a cruel twist of fate imparts his own sales technique, becoming Simon’s personal trainer. Seeming to be both scared of, and enamoured by, his new training partner, their relationship becomes increasingly more entangled as Terry’s grip over him tightens; so when his girlfriend leaves, of course Terry moves in.

Craig Fairbrass’ menace as Terry is obvious, but the manner in which he ingratiates himself, the levels of manipulation and contradiction (hilariously labelled ‘Terry Logic’) make him uncomfortably entrancing. A person for whom prison was a place with a good gym, good friends and good routine, he has machismo bravado and yet shows moments of vulnerability – and there’s nothing more frightening than being unpredictable.

The transformation of Simon, shown in a collapsed stylised montage, allows writer/ director Gerard Johnson to really use the cinematic form to mark a change, not only physical but cemented by his physicality. The scenes that replace sound with the isolating score effectively elevate the performances and dial up the paranoia.

Although it fails to pay off the tension in the end, Muscle is able to dig into a parasitic psychology that reminds us that the scariest home invasion films follow an invitation.

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