Writer-director Sean Durkin turns to a childhood obsession with a Texas wrestling dynasty and almost Shakespearean tragedy in The Iron Claw, a gritty, atmospheric, sometimes suffocatingly grim story of the Von Erich brothers, who ruled regional rings in the early ’80s with a then-inventive rock ‘n roll style of wrestling that won them rabid fans but at a cost.
Some families are snake-bit. The Kennedys are one that through the decades met success and unspeakable tragedy equally. The Wallendas, the great family circus trapeze family, also mixed glory with a high-wire act that didn’t always end well for some members. I wasn’t familiar with the Von Erich brothers, a close-knit family of Texas-born and -bred wrestlers managed by a take-no-prisoners father, but Durkin clearly was. He has carried around their story, particularly their premature deaths, in his head for years, finally now finding a way into telling their tale for the screen in a way that demonstrates brotherly love and bonding with toxic masculinity, Texas spirit and innate sadness.
Durkin says his film is not about grief and pain, but rather the absence of grief when people refuse to look at their pain. You could have fooled me. The Iron Claw, no matter how hard it tries, simply cannot escape the unrelenting grief served up here in just over two hours.
Beginning with a flashback to the wrestling days of family patriarch Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) as he mercilessly pummels his opponents, crushing their skulls with his hands, or “the iron claw” as they were known, the film also introduces us to his young and impressionable sons, who soon grow up to work in the family business as it were, all of them becoming members, one way or another, of dad’s organization known as World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), a regional, Texas-based operation in the days before this end of the sport would go nationwide.
Zac Efron is Kevin Von Erich, the oldest of the brothers and one bullied as a kid but determined to lead his siblings to meet his father’s wishes, so he bulks up and gets busy in the ring. His brothers, Mike (Stanley Simons), Kerry (The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White) and David (Harris Dickinson) follow, all under the iron claw of their unbending taskmaster of a father and coach who drives them to become what he never really could be. Their style in the ring, loose and pouncing, is undeniably entertaining, but the family scenes will turn dark.
SPOILER ALERT: If you aren’t aware of the Von Erich brothers and their fate, you might not want to read on.
This is an incredible portrait of a cursed group of human beings. Three of the brothers died by way of suicide. One of those, Chris Von Erich, is not portrayed in the film because Durkin rightly felt the truth of what happened outweighed what he wanted this movie to be about, and there is only so much an audience can take. Another brother died while on tour in Japan, apparently of a rupture. However this is not a story about a father driving his sons to death, but rather brotherhood interrupted. Whether one suicide begat the others isn’t clear, but this was a tight-knit group. Only Kevin survives to this day, and we get some relief and hope because of him and his positivity and undying love for his family. Still, the film’s second half is full of misery. Doris (Maura Tierney), the mother of the clan, at one moment has her black dress laid out on the bed as she cries that she just can’t bear to wear it to one more funeral, and needs to get a new one for those purposes.
This is Greek tragedy Texas-style, but it has some significant saving graces in the outstanding performances from a terrific cast Durkin has assembled, led by Efron in a role that may surprise many; he is a fine, often underrated actor. Efron’s most recent film before this one, Peter Farrelly’s wonderful The Greatest Beer Run Ever, proved his acting chops, and Iron Claw confirms them. He also is completely convincing in the ring, as are the others. Obviously these guys must have trained their asses off. Dickinson (Triangle of Sadness) and White each are given memorable and moving scenes as well. Lily James has the girlfriend role as Pam, who hooks up with Efron’s Kevin, and she nicely acquits herself rising above the stereotypical nature of this kind of part. Tierney is all pro as usual.
And the there is McCallany, who has described his role as kind of a modern King Lear. It fits. This actor does not attempt to soften the very hard edges of a man who will not change, who will not accept less than what he demands of his sons, and is unapologetic. He nails it.
This is only Durkin’s third film after the Sundance-winning Martha Marcy May Marlene, and 2020’s brilliant dissection of a marriage The Nest, which starred Jude Law and Carrie Coon in career-best performances that should have been seen by more people than those who did. He is an exceptionally talented director of actors, and clearly wants to find the humanity, even in the darkest corners of life.Durkin is aided here by cinematographer Matyas Erdely, production designer James Price and film editor Matthew Hannam.
I am not sure I can recommend The Iron Claw as a holiday outing, but it does attempt to show us a side of the male psyche, in triumph and tragedy, in brutality and brotherly love, in sorrow and hope, that just might stick in your head long after enduring it at the theater.
Producers are Tessa Ross, Juliette Howell, Angus Lamont, Derrin Schlesinger and Durkin.
Title: The Iron Claw
Release date: December 22, 2023
Director-screenplay: Sean Durkin
Cast: Zac Efron, Holt McCallany, Harris Dickinso, Jeremy Allen White, Lily James, Stanley Simons, Maura Tierney
Running time: 2 hr 10 min
Content Source: deadline.com