The Iron Claw, written and directed by Sean Durkin, is about, among other things, the perseverance of brotherhood, despite or in spite of a father’s smothering grasp. With sparkling, dust-mote-friendly cinematography by Mátyás Erdély, Durkin composes a film that’s as intimately observed as a shaggy character study from the 70s, and as sharp as a tungsten nanoneedle.
The year is 1979. The location is Texas. Jack Barton Adkisson Sr. (Holt McCallany), aka Fritz Von Erich, the former SS-garbed wrestling heel, is the father of five sons — one of whom, Jack Jr., is already deceased by the time the film begins, whose untimely death weighs heavily on the family’s day-to-day lives both inside and outside the squared circle. Another son, Chris Von Erich, is omitted entirely, though more on that anon.
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Fritz operates the WCCW (World Class Champion Wrestling), a mid-size arena with a local television timeslot and a devoted audience that comes primarily to see cards highlighting Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron), whose stage presence rivals his father’s. Kevin moves like a jaguar, and Durkin inventively stylizes the matches, paring the events down to stark highlights while maintaining focus on the sheer physical prowess — each articulate movement — that’s necessitated to keep the kayfabe alive. For all of the in-house rigging, these people are really beating the crap out of each other and themselves.
Kevin’s tenure in the ring has steadily given validity and visibility to the Von Erich name across various stateside circuits, reframing them as a heroic dynasty on the rise. So it’s not long before David (Harris Dickinson) joins his brother in the ring, and the two become a formidable tag-team duo, taking down the likes of Bruiser Brody and Gino Hernandez. Where Kevin is a hulking brute with muscles on muscles pulsating with every lunge, David is long and sinewy, and potentially better suited to crack the growing audience abroad. Fritz makes sure that the hierarchy of favorites is always known, “always changing,” and his finely tuned strategy for pushing the siblings further and further along the desired course.
As for the other brothers who figure heavily in The Iron Claw, there’s Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), Fritz’s “favorite,” who has a budding career as a record-breaking discus thrower. En route to the Moscow Summer Olympics, however, Kerry’s plans are waylaid as the U.S. boycotts the event. Sent home in sweats with a duffel, Kerry awaits his father’s invitation to join his brothers in the ring. It’s not long before he, too, is thrown into the fire.
Then there’s Mike, who has nothing of his brothers’ heft and instead develops his musical interests, much to the chagrin of Fritz, who seems to resent the boy mostly for a quality that Fritz denied himself somewhere along the line. But lest viewers think that this is a film that has too-familiar patterning, merely highlighting the cruelty of the father at the loss of the sons’ story, the other brothers seem particularly fond of Mike, eager to watch him play his first gig, and quick to stand up for him when Fritz goes too far. Of the myriad virtues of The Iron Claw, the brothers’ love of one another is paramount, despite their hermetic world’s twisted maker and the oneupmanship required in the ring.
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After one local match, Kevin meets Pam (Lily James), and the two hit it off. While Kevin is sweetly boyish and soft-spoken, Pam dives into the uncomfortable topics of conversation, coaxing the damaged He-Man-boy out of his shell. It’s not long before the two are married, and Kevin begins to see things a bit clearer for what they are. But it’s a long road to reprogramming, and for every minor joy that the Von Erichs experience, there’s something infinitely more devastating waiting around the corner.
Kevin is our guide through this journey, and his full-bodied devotion to his art and his father is the film’s fulcrum. Simply put, Efron delivers one of the great performances of this or any other year, using his face as the great silent film stars once did — with each muscle in his face as keenly considered as the rest of his physique. At once, he wears sadness, shyness, anger, and curiosity, with a shattered innocence that’s wholly entrancing.
For those who buy their ticket to The Iron Claw expecting either a stylized recap of a story they already know or a film that highlights career wrestling’s toll on the human body, there are plenty of aspects that will appeal: Matches are shown briefly, but with fidelity to not just the events as they occur but with the feeling of witnessing an entertainment unlike any other. Outside the ring, the interpersonal dynamics are shot candidly, with each plumply portentous statement filling the space with dread. Durkin’s script is shorn to the bone and lays bare each minor permutation of the family lineup’s standings while delivering a raw examination of the family’s plight.
For some, the omission of Chris Von Erich will irk. For aficionados who are well aware of the Von Erich curse, there’s no reason that another tragic story shouldn’t be added to an already absurdly chock-full grabbag of terrible events. But really, this choice opens up the film to a different kind of understanding. While this is certainly a story about the Von Erich clan’s rise and many falls, it’s also a story that has reverberations beyond what’s merely presented. The mythic quality — that certain well-trod narrative contours are being navigated — applies to many stories that place a father figure in the role of the tyrant. While the exact details of the Von Erichs’ story are solely their own, it is because this film is not just about play-by-play details that the peculiarities take on a universal register, calling to mind the great tragedies while offering a visual language all its own.
In the same vein, Durkin’s visual style is at times spiritually jarring — whether looking out at a windswept field or remaining hip-height on the second rope as it shakes off beads of sweat — and in opposition to merely relaying the events as they occurred. This film finds its form in the emotional beats of the brothers’ lives, conveying images that align with what they’re feeling instead of remaining firmly affixed to Fritz’s belief that the ring is the end all be all of what the Von Erich name means. As much as The Iron Claw delivers in terms of familiarity, many more moments feel stolen back from the brink of being utterly lost.
Of the few great wrestling films to exist — with Robert Aldrich’s …All the Marbles sitting comfortably at the top — The Iron Claw is leaps and bounds greater than most of the company it shares. It is a film that finds freedom in a familiar form, transcending its tragic material to become not just an ode to brothers who gave too much for their father’s cause but a poetically invigorating treatise about bodies navigating a cruel and unforgiving world.
The Iron Claw is now in theaters.
The Iron Claw
The true story of the inseparable Von Erich brothers, who made history in the intensely competitive world of professional wrestling in the early 1980s.
- Release Date
- December 22, 2023
- Sean Durkin
- Zac Efron , Jeremy Allen White , Harris Dickinson , Maura Tierney
- 130 minutes
- Biography , Drama , sport
- Sean Durkin
- Production Company
- A24, Access Entertainment, Access Industries
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