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‘The Iron Claw’ (review)

The words tragedy and triumph famously encompass the story of the legendary Von Erich family within pro wrestling circles. Sean Durkin wrote and directed the latest A24 release, The Iron Claw, which chronicles the life and times of the Texas-born and Texas-proud Von Erich brothers and their overbearing father.

Rockstar-level fame is riddled with cautionary tales, and Durkin masterfully crafts a story where bell-to-bell glory pales in comparison to the depressing heartbreak that befell the family.

Truth is sadly stranger than fiction as Durkin omits many details while still capturing the spirit of the story.

What’s covered in the film is hard enough to digest and believe, never mind what facts are left on the cutting room floor. Omissions, along with alterations to the story, will stick out like a sore thumb to die-hard wrestling fans whose patronage included Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling, the company that showcased the Von Erich family’s rise to prominence.

Changes to certain events have no bearing on the overall story or outcome.

Regardless of one’s wrestling knowledge, I knew the film would live or die with the portrayal of family patriarch Fritz Von Erich, portrayed by Holt McCallany (Mindhunter). Fritz’s antagonistic fatherly love is reminiscent of The Great Santini (1979). Robert Duvall’s “Bull” Meecham wouldn’t accept his son’s soft nature. Fritz never let up on his pursuit of the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship, which was the wrestling industry’s most prestigious prize during the film’s events. It’s the title Fritz never won and transferred the mission to his children, becoming a heedless burden.

McCallany often steals the show as the stern and tiresome presence who favors athletic glory over everything else. Most parents will say they love all their children equally. Fritz didn’t and had no problem admitting it, as he ranked his sons from favorite to least favorite.

This is a real moment, and McCallany brings it to life in a fashion that feels like the genuine article. The best heels in wrestling draw negative reactions from the crowd, referred to in the wrestling business as heat. There were several scoffs, jeez, and other disapproving remarks from the theatergoers in my screening.

Performances consistently shine in the movie, including Zac Efron, who plays the oldest brother, Kevin Von Erich. While Efron’s hulking physique borders on ridiculous, he exudes a big brother’s love in a manner that makes it impossible not to root for him, hoping he can avoid the Von Erich family curse of death and despair. Efron handles the physicality of wrestling well, adding depth to a nuanced performance. Kevin is not a confident individual, but he’s steadfast in trying to protect his loved ones, which borders on the destruction of his own family. As tragedy strikes, Kevin is convinced the curse is real and avoids his wife and kids, fearing he’ll pass it on to them. The combination of conviction and pain Efron conveys is understandable to a point, which makes viewers want him to overcome his fear even more than any championship he could win.

Lily James (Baby Driver) puts on an equally poignant performance as Kevin’s wife, Pam. Often, the portrayal of women with type A personalities in movies is an overly critical perfectionist who becomes disruptive. James does the reverse with Pam, who is strong, efficient, and handles an overwhelming amount of family responsibility in Kevin’s absence. Pam recognizes the extraordinary situation and gives Kevin his space until she eventually gives him an ultimatum that is easy to understand. Throughout it all, Pam’s love for Kevin, from their first meeting to their graveside chat, never wanes. Fritz tells Kevin he’s lucky to have someone like her in his life, and James’ outstanding performance cements that sentiment.

The casting of Jeremy Allen White (The Bear) as the biggest star among the brothers, Kerry Von Erich, received criticism. White is significantly smaller than the real Kerry. However, excellent camera work with heavy lifting from White’s performance makes it a nonissue. As much as the brothers were inseparable, they wanted their father’s approval, that number one ranking and Kerry was Fritz’s favorite son. Later on, a motorcycle accident irrevocably changed Kerry’s life.

Now, what was once easy to maintain became increasingly difficult to sustain. Kerry getting signed by WWF (Now WWE), a hallmark moment in most wrestlers’ careers, exacerbated Kerry’s physical pain, which augmented his mental anguish. White does a stellar job exhibiting someone with the highest expectations placed upon them whose soul is being crushed.

Perhaps the least is known about the matriarch, Doris Von Erich, played by Maura Tierney. Doris makes some interesting choices, but Tierney doesn’t make them come off as anything unique. Even in the end, another decision most would root for came off as muted in execution. Between the stylistic choices made with the character and the overall performance, Tierney looked out of place more often than not. However, it never distracted from the story being told.

Pro Wrestling aims to blur the line between fact and fable.

Durkin uses the goal of the genre during Kevin’s match with “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Kevin gets disqualified for refusing to release the family’s dreaded submission maneuver, the iron claw. Kerry and Fritz get on Kevin in the locker room, asking him what happened, trying to convey that either Kevin went off script or he initially broke the rules in a real fight. The Von Erichs often talk about wrestling as if it is real. Durkin leaves it up to viewers to decide how the moment should be taken, which is a subtle and well-placed tribute to the Kayfabe nature of wrestling, which means protect the business.

The movie’s title The Iron Claw, is a perfectly multifaceted representation of the film. The iconic submission hold is applied when a wrestler puts their palm on their opponent’s forehead and squeezes, creating increasing pressure and pain to their opponent’s temples. It’s an illusion that conveys the idea that a wrestler’s skull will be crushed if they don’t give up.

Michael, David, and Kerry, unfortunately, succumb to unrelenting patriarchal pressure, while Kevin, who could have easily suffered the same suicidal fate, finds the strength to escape the pattern and survive.

Sean Durkin had some tough decisions when deciding what to include and what not to include so that the film could have a reasonable run time of two hours and twelve minutes. Through all of the agony on display, Durkin impressively portrays the Von Erich brother’s unyielding bond. Love can easily get lost in overwhelming grief. Still, the well-produced film from head to toe wonderfully shows the strength it can take for love to break through such darkness, making The Iron Claw a movie that deserves your attention, even with its Dollar Store portrayal of Ric Flair.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Tessa Ross, Juliette Howell, Angus Lamont,
Sean Durkin, Derrin Schlesinger

Written and Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson,
Maura Tierney, Holt McCallany, Lily James


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