Sunday, December 3, 2023

Can “The Iron Claw” Wrestle Its Way Into The Oscar Race This Late In The Game?

As A24’s potential award slate made the festival rounds – “Past Lives,” “Priscilla,” “The Zone of Interest,” and so on – one upcoming release was conspicuous in its absence. “The Iron Claw,” a devastating drama film about the legendarily tragic Von Erich wrestling family, is finally coming out on December 22nd. It started filming in October 2022, and aside from a first-look still of Zac Efron in the ring as Kevin Von Erich, that was all we had on it until now, when the trailer finally dropped yesterday. The film’s plum December release date suggested it was being positioned as an awards player. Still, it’s unusual for A24 to launch one of their contenders without even showing it at TIFF or Telluride beforehand. Is it a crisis of confidence or something more mundane?

Apparently, it was the latter: “The Iron Claw” was in post-production past the festival deadlines. Now that it’s fully baked, it has a dramatic new poster and a splashy trailer set to Kerry Von Erich’s entrance music, Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and more hauntingly, Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” It certainly has a good pedigree: in addition to starring Efron, Harris Dickinson, and Jeremy Allen White, the film is directed by Sean Durkin, who helmed Elizabeth Olsen’s breakout in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” as well as the haunting, screwed-by-COVID drama “The Nest.” If A24 has a real champion on their hands, they could make a play for some major prizes at the last minute this awards season.

The question is, to what extent is that possible? This is shaping up to be a very crowded year: “Barbenheimer” continues to loom over the rest of the awards season like Scylla and Charybdis, while potential heavyweights like “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Poor Things” suck up plenty of oxygen, leaving no room for anything else. Zac Efron, who has yet to garner the respect amongst his peers for his work since emerging from the land of “High School Musical,” looks to be delivering his most physically demanding performance to date. It will dramatically ask a lot of him, perhaps more than any other role he’s ever taken on. Even if he were to give a career-best performance, it’s hard to see him making the top five when there are already three locks or near-locks (Cillian Murphy, Bradley Cooper, and Leonardo DiCaprio). White may have an easier go in the Supporting category – he has a meaty role as tortured golden boy Kerry Von Erich, and his star has been on the rise since “The Bear” became a television phenomenon (he is currently the frontrunner to win the Emmy for Oustanding Leading Actor in a Comedy Series this January too) – but it’s by no means a guarantee, not when he’s up against the likes of Robert De Niro (“Killers of the Flower Moon“), Robert Downey Jr. (“Oppenheimer“), Mark Ruffalo (“Poor Things“) and who knows who else. Plus, there’s character actor Holt McCallany playing the viciously demanding Fritz Von Erich. McCallany’s career received a significant boost with the release of David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” Netflix series, and his film role offers have reflected that with an appearance in Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” and an upcoming role in Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two.” Could the time to recognize him be this awards season?

The Iron Claw’s” chances of awards success may depend upon it breaking through with general audiences: a risky proposition at the best of times, and never riskier than in 2023. In a time where mid-budget movies frequently wither and die on the box office vine, film festivals have become a vital promotional tool, not only for the initial release but for the Oscars as well. It’s a way to establish a film’s critical bona fides and mark a movie as something worth talking about – because, all too often, audiences won’t pick up the slack. Still, it may not be an impossible task: audiences may be drawn in by the promise of flashy vintage wrestling, and while the grim subject matter (involving addiction, parental abuse, and suicide) may be too harrowing for some, others will doubtlessly be deeply affected. Also, there’s the built-in audience of wrestling fans who are highly aware of the Von Erichs and will want to see how their story is dramatized on the big screen versus what Vice did recently in the documentary format with “Dark Side Of The Ring.” It’s a gamble, but A24 has made plenty of gambles in the past and – despite its reported pivot towards general-audience fare – will make plenty more in the future.

Do you think “The Iron Claw” will be a late-breaking awards season player? Will Zac Efron receive the best reviews of his career, enough to place him in the Best Actor race? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out their latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Joe and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @HoeffnerJoe

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