There is something deeply distressing that resides within Gerard Johnson films. The PR and reviews are always quick to cite them as funny. In their absurdist way, they are. But what comes through more is the inherent bleakness of their stories. In Tony (2009) the titular serial killer is completely unable to socialise or get a job.
Slipping deep through the cracks of East London. Murder seems to be his only vice. The Michael Mann-tinged Hyena (2014), highlights the conflict of a bad egg gaining good “results” when it comes to policing. Both films deliver nervous laughter with the grim gags. The distress possibly comes from the ease with which his ugly characters become so relatable.
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In Muscle, Johnson’s most recent feature, this theme is perhaps at its most evident. While noting the obvious riffs on Fight Club (1999), one keen observer pointed out that the film’s final codec leans more towards Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). An unlikely reference for a lower budgeted Craig Fairbrass movie, yet with Gerard Johnson, the subversion lies in the idea that you are treading lightly on a rug, just waiting for it to be pulled.
Simon (Cavan Clerkin) waits on the rug with the viewer. Having moved up North with his frustrated girlfriend Sarah (Polly Maberly), he finds himself stuck in the type of dispiriting telemarketing job that many folk dread. He purchases a six-month gym membership with the hope that building on his physical state will improve his mental condition. Terry (Fairbrass) a personal trainer, decides to take Simon under his wing early on, despite Simon’s hesitation. Slowly, Terry begins to hijack Simon’s life in a similar way to Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden. Forcing himself into every aspect of Simon’s life with blunt determination, he soon finds himself slowly sinking in an abyss of toxic masculinity.
Playing out like a sweaty hybrid of Single White Female (1992) and Shane Meadows’ Twenty-Four Seven (1997), like Hyena, Johnson once again delivers a world in which the toxicity of testosterone envelops and corrupts an already damaged system. It is no surprise that Simon’s telemarketing job feeds off of the same swagger and sway of that of the gym. Once the dopamine takes hold it slowly distorts his more meaningful relationships, both at home with his girlfriend and at work with his drinking buddies.
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The architect behind Simon’s change, Terry, is a commandeering performance from actor Craig Fairbrass. The combination of Fairbrass’ imposing physique and domineering command of the screen is a perfect match for Stuart Bentley’s oppressive black and white photography. Johnson’s film captures the intimidating, sometimes poisonous atmosphere which inhabits such a male space, but the sheer force of Fairbrass’ performance nails down the anxiety that comes with the worst of the sub-culture.
Fairbrass’ performance is so good because it feels so accurate; the overbearing pub acquaintance you try and keep your distance from. Terry never gives Simon space to breathe, and Fairbrass pitches the performance so well. Dominating him with his frame is bad enough, but it is the continuous barrage of non-filtered emotional manipulation that disturbs. A character who cares little about boundaries because he trains to break them. Terry does everything to batter down his new roommate’s defences.
The film enjoys itself most when it veers into Persona territory. When Terry holds so much influence over what Simon has become that he is willing to perform acts he would not have dared to do when he was in his previous relationship. Johnson has fun blending the shifting identities, toying with the two characters’ vulnerabilities and ramping up the psychosexual tension between the two.
There is humour in the film’s antics, but it is always uneasy, often because of its familiarity as much as the hilarious absurdity. Whatever the case, the friction never really lets up, even as the film becomes more plot orientated later. The film’s final third along with its minimisation of the female cast members have been marked by critics as its weaker elements. That is somewhat understandable. However, in a film which is both a shot at toxic masculinity, and an absurdist homo-erotic journey to the abyss, there is a slight feeling of looking for a certain type of logic and representation that isn’t playing by those rules.
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However, rules like boundaries are often broken, and Johnson’s film, while inspired by the Angry Young Men movies of the past, enjoys hopping into the realms of the weird. Taking a side-eye at men who only have the war in their head to fight. Muscle places them on the rug and pulls hard.