The Iron Claw is a Hauntingly Brutal Portrait of a Real-Life Tragedy
Terrific performances lend weight to the story of the “cursed” Von Erich wrestling family.
“That’s pressure!” As an aged wrestler with oversized calloused hands grips the temples of his sons, he barks, sans remorse, the glaringly obvious — I’m putting pressure on you! — over their piercing cries of pain. In this moment, Fritz Von Erich, reincarnated for the screen by Holt McCallany, lays bare the muscle tissue underlying The Iron Claw: a seemingly invincible family who collapse under the burdensome weight of unwanted ambitions.
From director Sean Durkin and renowned arthouse studio A24, The Iron Claw is a handsome and devastating biographical period drama about the real-life tragedy of the Von Erich brothers, who for a brief moment in time dazzled the professional wrestling scene via their father’s Texas-based promotion World Class Championship Wrestling. Though Durkin’s movie isn’t terribly innovative in its stagecraft, it is overwhelming as an emotionally impactful drama that soars thanks to its sublime direction and its terrific actors who overpower the screen with their sweaty, out-of-breath efforts.
The Iron Claw opens over the hypnotic guitar licks and haunting melodies of Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” — an unsubtle but stylish foreshadowing of the fates that await. The movie teleports audiences to the early 1980s, into the seedy, smoke-filled arenas that dotted the waning years of the wrestling “territories,” an era just before the sport monopolized under the billion-dollar behemoth that is now WWE. But for all its impeccably designed replications, right down to the color of the robes Ric Flair wore in historic matches, The Iron Claw is gleefully unconcerned about whether its audience knows or cares about the finer points of wrasslin’. Durkin’s movie wisely plants itself as a grounded and accessible picture about a family in disarray, of brothers united in the trenches of psychological warfare against their father.
If these united brothers had a leader, it’s Kevin Von Erich, played with alluring masculinity by Zac Efron. Once upon a time, the Von Erichs were heartthrobs whose pictures adorned bedroom walls — they were The Beatles or the Jonas Brothers to Reagan-era Texans. In arenas scented by the miasma of stale beer and cigars, young girls screamed their names with shattering decibels. Efron, himself a former teen heartthrob, visibly carries the fatiguing gravity of keeping up an image. He is a most captivating anchor for Durkin’s movie: conventionally handsome but looking out of place in his environments. His stretched mannequin visage and chiseled jaw paint him as a customized video game avatar with the sliders set to maximum settings, and as he mills about from scene to scene — including fumbling a painfully obvious date invitation by Lily James’ underwritten Pam, his soon-to-be wife — it’s easy to see why Durkin singles him out as the weary glue on which a whole family relies to stay together.
Second in command is Kerry Von Erich, whom history has crowned the gem of the Von Erichs, being both decorated in the ring and the one most representative of the family’s tragic ruination. He is played with immense sympathy by Jeremy Allen White, whose affectionate and layered performance on FX’s The Bear carries over in a similarly wistful impression of Kerry, a gifted athlete who could have avoided a destructive path if he simply said “no” to his own father. Rounding out the brothers are Harris Dickinson and Stanley Simons as brothers David and Mike, respectively, whose own suffering amplifies a superstitious family curse Kevin only speaks of in whispers.
Towering over them all is the aforementioned McCallany, whose hardy Fritz Von Erich is an emblem of antiquated manliness; if alive today, Fritz would unquestionably subscribe to right-wing panic over pronouns and soy diets. His energy radiates like an unpopular football coach, his only care for his sons’ health and happiness extending in the same way one’s does to their team’s prospects. He isn’t a dictator per se, but he is like a prison warden, ordering his sons around for his own benefit without regard to their happiness and individuality. Too often the ropes that encircle the wrestling ring look like prison bars. When Fritz brings up business matters just hours after the funeral of one of his sons, the silent lividness that fills the room is deafening.
The Von Erichs legitimately endured a downfall that reads as ready-made for Hollywood, and Durkin’s interpretation of their implosion is mostly rational and somber. (However, there is the matter of the erasure of another brother who lived and died, Chris Von Erich, and Durkin’s argument that it was in the interest of length feels casually cruel.) In his executed vision, a mise-en-scène full of muscles and mullets, The Iron Claw dwells in the gray space between mid-level Oscar nominee and solid Lifetime movie. That is not an insult.
The Iron Claw is unpretentious, sentimental, and sober. It is refreshingly blunt and brutal in the vast magnitude of a family’s dysfunction caused by a patriarch whose only real sin is his narrow-minded determination. Its resolution, that of a father learning to feel feelings in front of his sons, is a graceful testament to the everlasting powers of brotherhood in which love and strength are inseparably held tight.