Gerard Johnson, writer-director of the serial-killer flick Tony and the corrupt-cop thriller Hyena, both set in London, travels 300 miles north to continue his run of blackly comic dramas. Muscle takes place in Newcastle (not that you’d know it from the cockney accents), where Simon (Cavan Clerkin) has a soul-crushing sales job and a moribund relationship. Can his tough new personal trainer Terry (Craig Fairbrass) guide him towards a healthier, more hopeful outlook?
Not likely. Every depressing detail, from Simon’s ill-fitting work shirts to the concrete car parks he walks past on his commute, underline what a colourless existence this is. At first, the choice to shoot in black and white seems unnecessary – until Terry embeds himself further, moving into Simon’s spare room and using the house to host extremely grim sex parties. At this point, the absence of realistic flesh tones is revealed as a blessed mercy; the realistic flesh-slapping sounds are horror enough.
This is Johnson’s first film without his cousin and collaborator Peter Ferdinando in the starring role, but Muscle’s two leads prove every bit as tuned into his uniquely bleak vision of male interaction. Simon’s workplace makes the Glengarry Glen Ross office look like a soothing yoga retreat and his gym, a place where reps keep pace with racist banter, is just as nightmarish. (Ferdinando does make a cameo, gruffly warning Simon off at reception, like Cerberus guarding the gates of hell.)
The excellent characterisation and exquisitely menacing atmosphere ultimately go nowhere, because the plot seems to drop its barbell mid-set and collapse before reaching any kind of conclusion. Still, Muscle’s darkest joke is rather a good one; that such an earnest effort at self-improvement can go so spectacularly awry.
• Muscle is in cinemas and on digital platforms from 4 December.