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The Iron Claw

Zac Efron turns in his best performance yet in this crushing wrestling biopic about the real-life Von Erich family.
By Sarah Ward
January 18, 2024
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By Sarah Ward
January 18, 2024
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The Von Erich family's second generation of wrestlers was born ready to rumble, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. After diving into a cult's thrall in Martha Marcy May Marlene, then the idea that money and status can buy happiness in fellow psychological thriller The Nest, writer/director Sean Durkin adds another exceptional and gripping film to his resume with The Iron Claw — a movie that draws upon elements of both, too, as it tells its heartbreaking true tale. Unpacking the weight carried and toll weathered by brothers locked into one future and way of life from the moment that they existed, this is a feature about the shadow cast by power and dominance by those caught in its shade, and the cost of doggedly chasing one concept of triumph and masculinity above all else. The Zac Efron (The Greatest Beer Run Ever)-voiced narration pitches it as a picture about a family curse as well, but the supernatural has nothing on an authoritarian force refusing to let anyone flee his grasp.

The Iron Claw introduces the IRL Von Erich sporting dynasty with patriarch Fritz (Holt McCallany, 61st Street) doing the grappling, busting out the trademark grip that gives the movie its name, as his wife Doris (Maura Tierney, American Rust) and two of his boys wait outside. When they all come together after the match, it isn't just the pledge that Fritz will bring the National Wrestling Association's World Heavyweight Championship to their brood, which he's certain will fix their struggling plight, that lingers. Equally inescapable is the unyielding fixation burning in his steely glare, a look that will rarely falter in the film's 132-minute running time — and how his adoring sons (first-timers Grady Wilson and Valentine Newcomer) are already trained to see this world of rings, frays, throws and belts as their home, career path and destiny.

Those two children, Kevin and David, are played as men by Efron — beefed up to a jaw-dropping degree, in a remarkable physical transformation that makes his Baywatch stint look lean in comparison — and Harris Dickinson (A Murder at the End of the World). When The Iron Claw leaps to the duo's adulthood in the 70s and 80s, they are indeed engrained in the family business. And it is the Von Erichs' business via World Class Championship Wrestling, where Kevin is initially the star performer. He's chasing the same prize as his dad did. Fritz, as firmly determined as ever, is always pushing and pressuring. Ranking his surviving boys (Jack Jr died at the age of six) is standard breakfast conversation. "Now we all know Kerry's my favourite, then Kev, then David, then Mike," he decrees over a table laden with eggs, sausages, bacon and juice. "But the rankings can always change."

A man passionate about little other than wresting, winning and his offspring doing both, Fritz isn't lying: when David shows more skill with the microphone than his elder sibling, perfecting the patter and bragging-heavy rapport, and wowing crowds, the Von Erich dreams for glory shift down the line. After talented discus athlete Kerry (The Bear's Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner Jeremy Allen White) has his Olympics quest dashed by the US boycott of the 1980 summer games in Moscow, he joins his brothers in spandex, making Fritz's eyes gleam. The younger, lankier Mike (Stanley Simons, Superior) is more interested in music, but that isn't the approved corner, ensuring that he has his time in the ring as well. Durkin leaves out Chris, the baby of the family, who also attempted to follow in the expected footsteps. A third generation has done the same since — Kevin's sons Ross and Marshall, plus Kerry's daughter Lacey — in events similarly beyond The Iron Claw's focus.

Few biopics rigidly stick to every fact and detail, but Durkin, who was a wrestling-obsessed 90s kid when the Von Erichs' fates were making regular headlines, truncates The Iron Claw's story for one reason: the sorrowful spiral of tragedy that's befallen its subjects is that relentless and devastating. The real-life details don't belong in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category — rather, they're evidence that life's worst exceeds anything that cinema can deliver, and that doubting that more blows can be on the way is the falsest move its characters, or anyone, can make. Agony, anguish and death stalk the Von Erichs, each new round chipping away at Kevin and his siblings' bonds of brotherhood. Among Fritz's boys, this isn't a movie about feuding kin; why Kevin is the feature's anchor is much more heartwrenching.

In a different year, when Oppenheimer's Cillian Murphy and The Holdovers' Paul Giamatti weren't duking it out for awards season's Best Actor accolades, Efron would be in the square. Achingly raw, the High School Musical, Bad Neighbours and Gold star turns in his finest performance so far as someone struggling not to become fodder in his all-American family's pursuit of the American dream (Fritz was born Jack Adkisson in Texas, then took on his pseudonym while playing the heel as part of an "evil German" double act). Vulnerability courses in the veins on Efron's muscled-up limbs — vulnerability in the face of masculinity's most-toxic manifestations and expectations at that — as does affecting tenderness in Kevin's yearning for love and acceptance that's always conditional from his dad yet never wavers from his brothers. Earnestness ripples as well, especially in scenes with his other well-cast colleagues, with White at his broody best; Dickinson and Simons both seesawing between spirited and haunted, each in their own ways; and Lily James (What's Love Got to Do with It?) vibrant, supportive but no-nonsense as Kevin's fan, girlfriend and then wife Pam.

Although wrestling and torment are no strangers in film — The Wrestler earned Mickey Rourke an Oscar nomination, and the lucha libre-based Cassandro barely preceded The Iron Claw to screens — Durkin's addition to the genre is a deeply resonant jump off the top ropes. It's also enamoured with laying bare the thrills and highs of the sport, aka what the Von Erichs keep seeking, with the in-ring action masterful in its choreography and showmanship no matter your fondness for the field going in. Behind the lens, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (Foe, and also Durkin's The Nest and TV miniseries Southcliffe) excels in seeing the theatre and performativeness of the space, just as his outdoor shots of Kevin and his brothers at their most content together glow with light and naturalism. The demand to play a part versus craving simply to be is The Iron Claw's central contrast, after all. Boom boom boom: as impeccably executed and acted, and crushing to watch, this is cinematic gold.

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