I’ve just watched Gerard Johnson’s 2019 movie “Muscle“, starring Cavan Clerkin and Craig Fairbrass, and had to do a review of it, because it’s such an instructive portrayal of a pathological personality, as well as interplay between a toxic person and a weak boundaried codependent. Craig Fairbrass’ performance is brilliant and film offers a playbook of all the things we must avoid doing in the real world if we want to avoid getting tangled up with people like his “Terry” character.
Some reviews have described Fairbrass’ Terry character as insecure, complex, troubled etc, but it runs deeper than that. He’s actually cast as a full blown psychopathic personality, and brilliantly and precisely so. The traits and portrayal of his character, as well as how the plot unfolds, is such a precise depiction of the profile and behavior of a psychopath that I had to cover it on this site.
Also the interplay and unfolding toxic relationship between Fairbrass’ Terry and the other male lead, Simon, played by Cavan Clerkin, is instructive of the typical interpersonal dynamic between a pathological disordered personality and a so-called codependent – the weak willed, weak boundaried individual who they tend to seek out because they are easy to manipulate and control.
We’ll cover this dynamic later on, but first, let’s do a brief plot summary, and then look at the psychopathic personality of Terry in more detail.
A Brief Plot Summary
Muscle initially portrays the flailing, empty life of a miserable salesman, Simon, played Cavan Clerkin. Emasculated, dis-empowered and despised by his girlfriend, he endures through his workdays and collapses into a routine of alcohol, takeaways, TV and arguments with his other half in his spare time. Things are clearly not going well for him.
Eventually, in an effort to get something moving, he joins a local gym, and is very quickly confronted by “Terry” (Fairbrass), an intense and intimidating local, who offers to be his personal trainer. Simon agrees, and there is initially some positive change. He gets into shape and things start improving at work as he’s more positive and energized.
However, soon after, his girlfriend leaves and things spiral downwards for Simon, as he starts to become more toxically enmeshed with Terry, who slowly encroaches more and more into his boundaries and life. Simon starts to find his life taken over by Terry, and as more and more unsavory things about his personality and past start to be revealed, Simon realizes he has made a mistake, but cannot easily escape from the entanglement his own poor judgement got him in.
That’s a very brief overview of the plot, but in this article, we want to first specifically look at the personality of Fairbrass’ Terry character, brilliantly written, portrayed and played, as it relates to psycho-pathology, because it’s so nuanced and instructive.
Some Classic Psychopathic Traits Displayed By Terry’s Character
Let’s look at how some traits common found in psychopaths are depicted by the “Terry” character in the film:
Charming and Imposing – This is harder to convey in film, as charm is something we feel by being in close personal contact with someone, but psychopaths tend to be very charming and charismatic. They put up a front that can be so charming and engaging that we are easily taken in by them, to the point where we forgo common sense precautions and just let them into our lives (“ah, just give him the job, we don’t need to get references, he’s alright”, or “ah, he’s a good laugh, I’ll let him move in with me, I don’t need to check his past or get references”, stuff like that). Psychopaths are brilliant at charming their way in like that. Fairbrass portrays this very well, but he’s also an imposing and intense character, which also makes it easier for him to get what he wants off people. But this general aspect of a psychopath using charm and force of personality to manipulate and exploit people is very well portrayed.
Lies, Manipulation & Deceit – Psychopaths are relentlessly manipulative and deceitful, and this is well portrayed in the film. As well as presenting himself falsely as a personal trainer when he isn’t – Simon later finds out that he’s the only person he’s ever actually trained – the Terry character is always lying and deceiving Simon in general. He’s not even called Terry for a start and is using an alias – more on that below. But pretty much everything Terry presents as himself to Simon is fake and false, and this is common with psychopaths. They’re always having to lie to cover up their past, and also to scam people out of money or resources, or otherwise use them for their own ends.
Inconsistencies & Hypocrisy – Relates to the lies and deceit. As soon as Simon actually starts digging into Terry’s life and past, he finds that nothing stacks up. His name doesn’t match, his address is given as a diner, and he starts to realize that the entire image Terry presented of himself is fake. This is common with psychopaths – they’re often getting found out and having to move onto pastures new to deceive a new set of people. You can often spot this early on though, as the psychopath says things which are in-congruent and in opposition to things they’ve said before, and sure enough Simon catches Terry doing this, but overlooks it. Is Terry a hedonistic party animal, or into discipline and training? It seems to change according to whatever Terry feels like in the moment, and he gets angry whenever his contradictions and hypocrisy are pointed out. Typical for a psychopath and a huge red flag to watch out for.
Attachment Disorders – This is almost always a key marker of psychopathy. Although there are some psychopaths that seem to behave this way despite having loving parents who think they did everything right, most psychopaths have troubled childhoods when you look into it more, where parental figures that should have been looking after them instead abused, exploited and objectified them. This then leads to an inability to properly bond in the real world, and is brilliantly portrayed by Fairbrass. Early on in the film, he throws a fit when Simon no-shows a training session to instead cheer up his downtrodden mate with a few drinks at the pub – he sees it as being let down one more time. We also see subtle signs of psychological imprinting from Terry, where he seems even fixated and obsessed on Simon once he starts getting closer to him.
Later on, we see him admitting he didn’t have any affection in childhood (though we have to be careful here, because psychopaths will often put on sob stories to elicit a sympathy reaction from gullible people, known in psychology as malingering). But in general, this is true with psychopaths, and as the film progresses, we see the Terry character is glib and charming and loves being around people, but cannot actually connect with anyone properly. He lacks the empathy and emotional range to do so, like any psychopath. And then after he is forced to move out of Simon’s place and go on the run again, he leaves an obnoxious present behind, one last parting shot that is really from the hurt, wounded inner child in Terry that tried to connect with someone and failed one more time.
Here’s a quote from Fairbrass’ Terry character that perfectly sums up how psychopaths view relationships in general:
“(Girlfriends) are great until you get found out, then it’s time to get a new one”
When you dig into a psychopath’s past, you’ll find this has been their life pattern – bumbling from one disastrous relationship to the next, seeing how long they can pull the wool over each person’s eyes, until they get “found out” and have to move on to someone else.
So in real life, be careful. If you hear someone talking about having a brutally abusive childhood, or a long list of train-wreck relationships, yet they don’t seem to have put any work into resolving and coming to terms with it, and instead just live a hedonistic life, always fleeing from legitimate suffering, it’s a red flag and not someone you want to be letting get close to you.
A Troubled/Criminal Past (Skeletons in the Closet) – Again almost universal with psychopaths, who commonly break the law, spend time in prison, and leave a wreckage of broken relationships and job dismissals behind them that you will often be able to uncover if you do some digging. This is another reason why you should listen to what people tell you, and follow up on your gut instinct if something doesn’t seem right about someone in real life interactions. When pressed, Terry openly admits to a violent (probably murderous) past in the army, and also admits he’s served time in prison for sexual assault, downplaying it. Psychopaths do cover up a lot, but they’ll also tell you who they really are if you ask the right questions and have ears to listen. They’ll tell you without even realizing they’re doing it sometimes. The other side of the equation is if the other person acts on these red flags and actually distances themself, or continues to overlook or deny them, getting further tangled up with them. Simon chooses the latter, which is why his life continues to spiral out of control.
Fake Identity & Name – When Simon eventually goes to the police, they recognize Terry in photos and inform Simon that he isn’t called “Terry” at all and his real name is actually something else. Literally everything about himself that he presented to Simon is false. Very common with psychopaths, and links to the point about skeletons in the closet. They often use fake names and aliases, as they manage to manipulate and deceive for a while, but eventually get found out and have to move on to a new environment with new people, where they often reinvent themselves with a new identity and name. It’s how psychopaths tend to operate, constantly moving around in life looking for the next set of people to dupe and manipulate. At the end of the film, Terry’s no doubt gone to another part of the country/world, to start all over again with a new fake name. So it is with real life psychopaths as well.
Hedonistic personality & lifestyle – A huge marker of psychopathy. All psychopaths are hedonistic to some extent, always seeking pleasure and fleeing from any kind of pain or suffering (even when legitimate) to an extreme degree. As soon as Simon foolishly lets Terry move in, his house straight away turns into “party central”, with drinking, drug taking and sex all over the place. This is typical if you ever let a psychopath move in with you – they’ll just turn the place into a toxic, hedonistic mess, inviting similarly toxic and disordered friends around (the phrase “birds of a feather flock together” is relevant with these characters). If it was a nice, quiet, relaxed place before, it won’t be once the psychopath’s been there a few weeks. It’ll be a mess and the “wrong crowd” will be fully in there. And they’ll often try and move in more of their unreliable “mates”, that makes it even worse, and sure enough this is what happens in the film! This ultra-hedonist lifestyle that Simon sees Terry absorbed in is also at odds with the “discipline” mindset he was drilling into him early on – see the section on hypocrisy and inconsistencies.
Erosion of boundaries – Typical with psychopaths and well portrayed in the film. Right from the first interaction, Terry is pushing the boundaries with Simon, imposing himself on him and trying to control and dominate him. This is how psychopaths operate – they’re power-fixated personalities. They’ll constantly chip away at your boundaries and move you bit by bit towards a place where you’re under their control. A guy Simon trains with a the gym is all of a sudden living in his house, and before he knows it he has totally lost control of his life, and is totally toxically enmeshed with this guy. This is what will happen if you let a psychopath into your life. Within a matter of weeks, what was a nice, quiet, clean house Simon shared with his girlfriend has turned into a toxic hell-hole with swingers parties and drugs everywhere. He literally feels like a prisoner in his own house, such is a psychopath’s ability to take control over a person’s life and invert reality.
The Psychopath-Codependent Dynamic Between Terry & Simon
This is again where I diverge rapidly from other reviews of the film I’ve read, which have focused on the issue of (toxic) masculinity and testosterone fueled male gym culture.
To me, this isn’t the main issue. While it’s the main setting of the film, it’s not the real reason Simon’s life falls apart. His life falls apart because he’s a typical codependent who can’t say no and his boundaries are terrible, so when Craig Fairbrass’ Terry character enters his life, he doesn’t resist it in the way a neuro-typical with stronger boundaries would.
And to anyone that’s lived through or studied personality disorders and toxic relationships, they’ll know full well that when a manipulative, exploitative personality meets with a codependent, weak boundaried person, it fits like a toxic “hand in glove” dynamic (a manipulative, exploitative psychopath like Terry would be drawn to and seek out a codependent like Simon who can’t say no).
To anyone that has boundary issues or fears getting tangled up with these types of people, the film is actually an instructive lesson in all the things NOT to do from Simon’s character!
Here are some examples of this codependent-psychopath dynamic playing out; some silly mistakes Simon’s character makes that you should never make when dealing with these characters in real life:
Things moving too fast – I don’t know if this was filmmaker Gerard Johnson’s intention, but the plot unfolds in a way that makes it seem like everything moves very fast. Simon starts working out at the gym, then all of a sudden this Terry guy is in his face berating him, then his personal trainer, and then all of a sudden he’s moved in and living with him! Without any time to properly vet him or really know who he is, check his past etc. Is this normal? No, but this is a classic codependent mistake – they often move in with toxic partners who they think are great, or let them move in, within days or weeks of meeting them. Everything moves too fast, before there is any proper vetting or character judgement, and things tend to unravel accordingly. In real life, take time to observe and vet new people – not saying “yes” to everything and letting things move too fast. It never ends well.
Psychopaths scan for codependents – The way that Terry specifically approaches and seeks out Simon’s character specifically is typical of this dynamic. Terry speaks to other people in the gym but would he try the same nonsense with them, pushing the boundaries and wriggling into their life? No, because he knows they have boundaries and wouldn’t stand for it. Psychopaths and narcissists scan the environment specifically for these weak boundaried, codependent types who can’t say no, that they know they can easily control and dominate, and quickly slide into their life in a way that they know the codependent won’t resist.
Overlooking red flags – Another huge mistake Simon’s character makes. Never do this in real life when confronted with pathological personalities. Right from the second or third time Simon meets Terry, we see obvious red flags that would be setting alarm bells off for any normal person (the “mask” is off because he doesn’t know Simon is there yet). Terry is talking to some gym mates in a thuggish, aggressive manner, recounting a story of how he viciously attacked a doorman. It is shot in a way that makes you think Simon is observing this, but Terry doesn’t know this. Once he turns and sees Simon, he quickly ends the conversation and comes over to engage with Terry more normally. The “mask” comes back up again. A classic red flag moment – any non-codependent would see straight away this is not a person you should be getting involved with, and put their guard up accordingly. Simon sees it and overlooks it – typical codependent behavior. Also other blatant examples of this as the film progress, as pretty horrible stuff leaks out about Terry’s criminal past, obvious lies, contradictions etc. There are so many points where a non-codependent would say “this is enough” and break off the relationship, but Simon just keeps going despite seeing the obvious himself. He can’t say no and has got too enmeshed too quickly.
Letting unacceptable stuff go – Related to the last point, Simon’s character just caves in and lets stuff go that he obviously shouldn’t. Once Terry is moved in with Simon himself, he suggests moving in another of his female friends who’s just had her kid taken off her(!). Simon questions this and (rightly) sees this as a red flag, but then doesn’t refuse and lets her move in anyway! This is another layer of the problem with codependents; often it’s not that they don’t see the lies and red flags – it’s that they remain in denial and continue to overlook them and say yes when they should say no. They don’t act on their correct initial perception and say yes because it feels easier than saying no.
This section might seem like a weird take on the plot of the film, but believe me, it is VERY instructive in all the things one must NOT do when dealing with pathological and manipulative people like Terry’s character. Anyone with boundary issues, take note of the interplay between Simon and Terry, and all the obvious mistakes Simon makes, and be sure to not make them if you encounter anyone like this in your own life (yes, these people do exist – 1-4% of the population is estimated to have psychopathic/sociopathic traits, so you will encounter people like this at some point in your life).
Muscle is a terrific film, brilliantly written, directed and played by the lead actors. Whether writer/director Gerard Johnson and Craig Fairbrass meant to or not, they’ve provided a superb study of the psychopathic personality with the Terry character, as well as the codependent-psychopath interplay with the Simon character.
My analysis is different from standard film reviews, in that I want to extract as much information and meaning out of the film’s plot to educate and instruct others how to (and how NOT to) deal with these characters if you meet them in real life. While the plot is fictional, the personality traits and behaviors portrayed by Fairbrass’ Terry character are very real, accurate and instructive of how pathological people will act when they first meet you, and then once they’re enmeshed in your life and the mask comes off.
This film is highly recommended if you want to understand how psychopaths think and operate in the world, and just more generally as a great film if you don’t mind adult themes.
Click here to view Muscle on Amazon Video, which comes with Amazon Prime. It’s currently not included with the subscription and there is a small extra charge to watch.
Warning – The film does contain strong adult themes, including a very explicit sex party scene, so beware of this before purchasing if this is something that might bother you.