The true story of the Von Erich brothers is a heartwrenching tragedy, but also one filled with hope. Here’s our review of The Iron Claw.
From its first minutes, The Iron Claw, writer-director Sean Durkin’s blistering rendition of the Von Erich family’s troubles, establishes the wrestling ring as an arena where you’re measured and validated. You’re there to perform, to compete, often against your own kin.
The story begins in 1979. Brothers Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson) and Mike (Stanley Simons) all compete for the approval and attention of their father, former wrestling legend Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany). The family lost another sibling years earlier, making Kevin in particular to believe that the Von Erich family is somehow cursed.
Tragedy is indeed at the heart of The Iron Claw. Durkin has fervently defended his decision to erase another Von Erich brother from the film, arguing that “it was one more tragedy that the film couldn’t really withstand”. Now, we won’t go into detail about the misfortunes the Von Erichs faced (you have Wikipedia for that), because The Iron Claw isn’t really a film about tragedy at all. It’s a film about fathers and sons and toxic masculinity.
What makes The Iron Claw so striking is how much focus Durkin puts on the influence of Fritz. McCallany is a commanding, towering presence here, both physically and spiritually. The film’s title refers to a move Fritz originated in the ring; a powerful grip that almost instantly forces your opponent to the ground. We get the sense that the iron claw isn’t just a wrestling move when it comes to Fritz, but a larger metaphor for the effect he has on his boys.
Efron delivers a career-best performance here. His physical transformation is extraordinary, but Efron also shows great understanding of Kevin’s insecurities, often communicated only in glances. Jeremy Allen White is also on excellent form as Kerry, the most popular of the brothers.
I had qualms with the film, though. Kevin’s wife Pam isn’t as developed as she could have been, and the family matriarch Doris also often feels like an afterthought. The film’s also a relatively straightforward sports film and the erasure of Chris Von Erich feels iffy, even if Durkin has made his case for leaving him out of the story. The film also often adopts a very theatrical, almost melodramatic style which doesn’t always compliment the narrative.
Yet, The Iron Claw is a powerful, exceptional film about masculinity, wrestling and fathers and sons. It’s expertly acted and Durkin’s control of the story beats is impressive. Even if the rest of the film doesn’t suit your tastes, the final scene is enough to both rip your heart into pieces and put it back together again.
The Iron Claw is in UK cinemas 9th February.