gerard Johnson, writer-director of serial killer film Tony and corrupt crime thriller Hyena, both set in London, travels 300 miles north to continue his streak of dark comedy dramas. Muscle is set in Newcastle (not that you know it from the cockney accents), where Simon (Cavan Clerkin) has an overwhelming sales job and a dying relationship. Can his tough new personal trainer Terry (Craig Fairbrass) guide him to a healthier, more optimistic outlook?
Not likely. Every depressing detail, from Simon’s ill-fitting work shirts to the concrete parking lots he walks past on his commute, underlines how much of a colorless existence this is. At first, the choice to shoot in black and white seems pointless – until Terry sinks deeper, moves into Simon’s spare bedroom, and uses the house to organize extremely dark sex parties. At this point, the absence of realistic skin tones reveals itself as blessed mercy; the realistic flesh-slapping sounds are pretty awful.
This is Johnson’s first film without his cousin and collaborator Peter Ferdinando in the lead role, but Muscle’s two lead roles prove to be just as suited to his particularly dark take on male interaction. Simon’s workplace makes Glengarry Glen Ross’s office look like a calming yoga retreat, and his gym, a place where reps keep pace with racist banter, is just as nightmarish. (Ferdinando makes an appearance, warning Simon gruffly at the reception, like Cerberus guarding the Gates of Hell.)
The excellent characterization and overwhelmingly menacing atmosphere ultimately lead nowhere, as the plot seems to drop its bar halfway through and crumble before reaching any conclusion. Still, Muscle’s darkest joke is pretty good; that such a serious effort at self-improvement can go spectacularly wrong.