Craig Fairbrass, Polly Maberly and Cavan Slerkin headline Muscle – a difficult film to watch, but a strong piece of work.

For the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘toxic’ defined 2018 (unsurprisingly, this year’s word is ‘lockdown’). The context was ‘toxic masculinity’, the lifeblood of Gerard Johnson’s Muscle, which comes complete with bulging biceps, bullying and an insidious ability to get under your skin.

Life in the North East is increasingly depressing for Londoner Simon (Cavan Clerkin). His telesales job is a scam, he and girlfriend Sarah (Polly Maberly) are drifting apart and his self-esteem is at an all-time low.

Joining a gym to get himself in shape physically and mentally, he meets Terry (Craig Fairbrass), who takes him on as a personal project. But when his trainer becomes his lodger, Simon finds his life has been taken over and heading in a direction which makes him feel uncomfortable – and fearful.

Terry personifies the worst in aggressive masculinity: controlling, a racist and a misogynist, yet with plausible explanations for his behaviour, all of which Simon readily accepts. And he has a knack for sniffing out weakness in any shape or form, which makes his new friend an apt pupil. Simon’s physique develops and his muscles expand as Terry’s regime takes hold, while he also adopts the same shaven headed, bearded look favoured by all the other members of the gym – a men’s club with exercise equipment, and where no women are allowed.

In his previous film, gritty cop thriller Hyena (2015), Johnson often showed us too much. This time, he’s not only got that under control but he’s also developed an impressively sinister subtlety.

We’re prevented from seeing crucial items and moments, and he knows our imagination will conjure up something far worse than he could ever show us. But he still refuses to pull any punches, so there’s no doubt about Terry’s physical and psychological capabilities. There’s a certain irony in fast talking salesman Simon falling prey to the muscle-bound predator’s manipulating ways, always being talked into doing things he instinctively knows aren’t right, but giving in nonetheless.

With its interior settings, Muscle has a claustrophobic atmosphere reminiscent of Misery, emphasised by close ups of the two main characters. Clerkin’s Simon isn’t the most decisive person going, but you long for him to stand up to his bullying lodger, while Fairbrass is skin-crawlingly repellent, dominating the screen but keeping his cards close to his massive chest.

Instantly bad news as soon as he appears on screen, his unsettling presence immediately puts you on edge – and it only gets worse.

The film’s third star is its black and white cinematography, creating all-embracing brooding menace with both style and ease.

Grimy and foreboding, don’t expect Muscle to be an easy watch. It isn’t. But that intoxicating smell of testosterone is hard to resist.

Muscle is in UK cinemas and video on demand now.

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