David G. Hughes on Gerard Johnson’s ‘Muscle’ (2019)
The British cinema is obsessed with sociology. The down in the dumps “social realism” that characterises the nation’s critically-lauded export is best exemplified by a wonderful threat from the adrenaline-fuelled hooligan, Bex (Gary Oldman), in Alan Clarke’s The Firm (1989): “Do you know what sociology is? Sociology is the study of social problems. And you—you got a big fucking problem, boss.” The British are still doing sociology on screen. They’re particularly interested in working-class masculinity—so effectively embodied by Oldman in that wonderful TV film—and how it is woven into the study of social problems.
Credit can go to British cinema for realising the connection early on—that class is inexorably linked to the codes and behavioural patterns commonly called “masculinity”, and that it’s not obvious whether destructive manhood is a consequence of dispossession or a contributing factor, a cyclical hell depicted in films from The Firm to Football Factory (2004) and This is England (2008)—good movies all. Frankly, and speaking generally, British cinema’s pessimistic mood on the seemingly irresolvable bind is far closer to reality than you’ll find in today’s booksellers and newspapers, out there pushing ill-researched and class-blind notions of utopia based on male re-education without ever attempting to make sense of the conditions and vicissitudes that make masculinity irreducible.
Muscle, the new film by director Gerard Johnson, is not so blind and follows the British social realism tradition in multiple ways. It’s got a sheen of portentousness thanks to its monochrome photography, a stygian Northern milieu, and it shines a light on existential social blight. There’s the obvious echo from British New Wave only with 21st century preoccupations, like pseudo-entrepreneurial telemarketing that has taken over meaningful labour and which now infests the British heartlands. But Muscle—so effectively named—goes deeper than sociology and dips into the miasma that is motivational psychology and male meaninglessness. For Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay, masculinity is not a social phenomena but a psychological fact, an inevitable temptation, and a question of the soul.
The pull is irresistible. Despondent about his soul-crushing telemarketing job, loveless relationship, unattractive beer-belly, and endlessly mundane walking commutes through Newcastle’s post-industrial landscape, Simon (Cavan Clerkin) is suddenly brought out of his slumber by the sight of a big fella peacocking his way out of a streetside gym, the man’s strength and stroll impressing upon him. He joins the same gym and encounters Terry (Craig Fairbrass), who scolds the rookie for what is every casual gym goers worst fear: working out wrong. Terry’s an assertive and alluring personal trainer who browbeats Simon with the prospect of getting very big and very strong—just like him.
The relationship that forms between Terry and Simon is the dramatic kernel of the film, and it’s a deeply complex and exciting tête-à-tête between wandering spirits. Both actors perform wonders, Clerkin for the astonishing physical transformation and depiction of gradual psychological unmooring, and Fairbrass for his dynamic take on a sensitive brute with a mysterious, and troubling, past. He’s not so much playing against the tough-guy type he’s known for, but going deeper into it—a continuation of the work he started with Villain (2019) and the cumulative result of a long career that brings productive association. Only he, at this point in his career, could do this and do it this well, up there with Oldman and De Niro in his depiction of agitated manhood.
This is a cerebral film with an intelligent grasp of its subject and a genuinely bold artistry. But it’s also, crucially, a very physical, sweaty movie. It’s got an edge, proximity, and a scent to it. It’s important that we feel the frustrations and intoxication that Simon feels so we can understand the attraction that Terry holds. But it’s not too long before his influence spreads in other, more tempestuous, and less welcome ways. I suppose this is a cautionary tale. But buzzwords like “toxic masculinity” don’t do justice to Johnson’s excellent feature, which isn’t a “deconstruction” (a top-down academic term ill-suited to the organic expression on show here) as much as a fraught, honest, and self-scrutinising working-out (quite literally in this case) of the ambivalence that many men have towards their own sense of manhood, self-worth, and agency. Muscle is chiefly about transformation, superlative at showing how physical and mental change seep into each other to the point of indistinguishability. But it’s the type of transformation that is morally ambiguous and comes from an encounter with unconscious forces. Agency is a natural want, but the strive towards it is replete with hazards.
The psychoanalysts asserted that the ocean is synonymous with the unconscious, so it’s telling that the gym in which much of Muscle’s screen time takes place is called Atlantis. Deep diving into his own psyche, Simon seeks the hidden kingdom within. But is it all a fantasy? Will Simon be swept away by the rough currents of self-exploration? We should not hesitate to mention works like Taxi Driver (1976) or Raging Bull (1980) in relation to Johnson’s ambition, who shows as acute an understanding of the masculine dilemma as Martin Scorsese (the artistic choice of black and white feels like a particularly knowing citation of Raging Bull, although a visual choice I’m not convinced the film required), and the film’s claustrophobic and hazy depth of field gives Simon’s descent a gurgling, nightmarish texture.
But one doesn’t need to be a psychoanalyst to appreciate Muscle’s overt sexual symbolism and the connection it makes between masculinity and homoeroticism, as burly men suck on ice pops and watch bodybuilder competitions in the dark. Muscle is not sheepish about frank topics of sex and violence—it’s everywhere as a thick, underlying presence in the room, yet rarely manifest until it explodes in a libertine (and unsimulated) orgy scene. Johnson leans into his medium’s unique ability to stimulate aesthetic thrill and erotic charge based on tension, discomfort, and the unknown, a potential that goes untapped by so many film’s today—to the medium’s detriment. Who would have guessed that social realism and psychosexual thriller would make such great bedfellows?
It’s only when Simon begins to resist Terry’s imposing influence that the film lurches into a less interesting and conventional crime thriller territory, departing from the gripping intimacies and vexations of the core relationship. But there’s something beautifully bathetic about the very end, which some have accused of being anti-climatic but, in fact, further reveals the film’s muscular grasp of psychological symbolism. As the beautiful relationship crumbles, ending in threat and betrayal, Terry leaves his old friend a literal turd. It’s emblematic of the film: male bravado on the surface—a gross “fuck you”—but also, considered in psychoanalytic terms, the sad parting gift of a needy and lonely child, abandoned, let down, and forced from his new home back into the wilderness. Like the relationship between the two characters, nothing is clear or plain in Muscle, each scenario a Rorschach test for barely graspable but potent feeling. It’s a rich experience.
Johnson’s film expresses the deep spiritual malaise and experience of failed connection common to so many working men today, of the physical gains that function as a poor adhesive to inner wounds. Here’s a project that earnestly seeks to understand the restlessness of abandoned souls, those condemned to grasp at meaning through little more than the promise of the pump. It’s socially relevant, for sure. But more importantly, there’s poetry in Muscle.
“Muscle” is showing in cinemas and is available through video on demand. It’s released on home video 1st February 2021.
Director Gerard Johnson
Writer Gerard Johnson
Cinematographer Stuart Bentley
Editor Ian Davies
Cast Craig Fairbrass, Cavan Clerkin, Sinead Matthews, Lorraine Burroughs
Duration 100 minutes