THE STORY – The true story of the inseparable Von Erich brothers, who make history in the intensely competitive world of professional wrestling in the early 1980s. Through tragedy and triumph, under the shadow of their domineering father and coach, the brothers seek larger-than-life immortality on the biggest stage in sports.
THE CAST – Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Holt McCallany & Lily James
THE TEAM – Sean Durkin (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 132 Minutes
When it comes to the iconography of athletes, sometimes the story surrounding them supersedes what they bring to their respective sport. There’s nothing more infatuating to sports fans than the figures they idolize. Everything good or bad that transpires in these athletes’ lives helps manufacture the mythology that will forever solidify them in the legacy of the sport they dedicate their lives to. While every athlete experiences adversity, few legacies are overshadowed by personal tragedy as much as the Von Erich wrestling family. Sean Durkin’s “The Iron Claw” (named after the wrestling hold the family’s patriarch, Fritz Von Erich, popularized then passed down to his children) not only delves into the lives of the Von Erichs but approaches this heartbreaking story with a compassionate and respectful perspective that shows how love can overcome any of life’s hardships.
“The Iron Claw” follows the rise and fall of the iconic wrestling family, the Von Erichs. Led by former wrestler Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), this family of wrestlers catapulted their way into the limelight in the early ’80s in the heart of Texas. As Fritz Von Erich’s sons gained notoriety and acclaim in the world of wrestling, they also began to experience an onslaught of tragedies outside of the ring. This put to the test not only their commitment to the sport but also their love for one another.
When watching “The Iron Claw,” it’s easy to see how the Von Erich brothers became wrestling superstars. The energy and theatrics they brought to the sport, especially by David Von Erich (played charismatically by Harris Dickinson), were magnetic. This magnetism is captured perfectly in “The Iron Claw” partly due to how fantastic the ensemble is. While the film focuses on the Von Erich brothers, it’s Kevin Von Erich (played by Zach Efron) who navigates the audience through this story. From a physical perspective, what Efron brings to this character is unreal. His commitment to physically transforming into Kevin is possibly one of the most dramatic transformations on film in recent memory. From his very first scene, Efron shows off his herculean physique but also shows how he’s willing to push his body to the limit. Beneath that muscular exterior, he delivers a surprisingly tender performance. As much as Kevin has an affinity for wrestling, his love for his brothers is far greater. Kevin’s loving and earnest nature is the soul of the film that “The Iron Claw” hinges on. Without Efron’s performance or Kevin’s perseverance, the film would be too bleak. It’s quite a balance that Efron pulls off effortlessly as he delivers the best performance of his career.
Alongside Efron, the supporting cast all deliver as well. As Kerry Von Erich, Jeremy Allen White is also a standout with a devastating performance. Watching White interact with every scene partner as Kerry continues to spiral out of control is fascinating as it seems everything is going well for the young wrestler on the outside, but on the inside, he’s dealing with many demons very few know about. It’s satisfying to see how much “The Iron Claw” allows the supporting cast members to not only flesh out their characters but also get their moments to shine. Dickinson is an absolute scene stealer and is almost up there with Efron for best in show, considering his limited screen time. It’s also nice to see Durkin allow great character actors like McCallany and Maura Tierney to have time in the limelight. McCallany gets to unleash such dark energy as Fritz, while Tierney delivers a subtly heart-wrenching performance as the mother who should’ve taken a stand against Fritz when he continued to push his boys too far but never did. The only person in the ensemble who is under-utilized is Lily James as Pam Adkinson (the central love interest of Kevin Von Erich). This issue is primarily due to problems in Durkin’s screenplay and not with the solid performance James delivers. Everyone in “The Iron Claw” is bringing their absolute best individually, but when the Von Erich brothers are together on screen, whether inside or outside the ring, it’s undoubtedly some of the best ensemble work of the year.
Durkin continues to elicit great performances from his actors, but his staging for the wrestling sequences is quite spectacular and essential to the film. Regarding the wrestling itself, it’s harder to sell non-fans on the legitimacy of what happens in the ring. The artistry of wrestling is that these athletes are putting on a show for the audiences. Their goal is to sell the audience on what’s happening inside the squared circle and get them actively engaged, not win or lose matches. Most films depicting wrestling rob the sport’s essence of how physically demanding it can be and how important it is to capture the crowd’s emotions. “The Iron Claw” perfectly showcases the physical, emotional, and mental toll the sport takes on these athletes, while the choreography for the wrestling sequences is executed and edited terrifically.
While “The Iron Claw” may feel grander than Durkin’s previous two films, it’s the least refined of the three. When the film isn’t focusing on the ring action, its pacing can stall at times, especially towards the second half of the film; however, it never gets to a point where viewers become completely disengaged by what’s transpiring. Durkin’s strong direction makes up for a few of the screenplay’s issues (including the exclusion of one of the Von Erich wrestling brothers, Chris). There’s so much story Durkin wants and needs to cover with only so much time. This leads to some events feeling incredibly dour as consistent tragedies happen continuously. While it’s not entirely relentless with how grim the film can be, it effectively puts the audience in Kevin’s shoes, giving an insight into his mental state as the once promising wrestling family begins to crumble under the superstitiously labeled “Von Erich Curse.” Another minor issue is some of Durkin’s directorial choices can undercut some of the actors’ performances. One sequence towards the film’s end, a beautifully constructed metaphor, doesn’t entirely work due to its translation from page to screen and detracts from what Efron is trying to accomplish.
The story of the Von Erich family is something Durkin grew up learning about and resonated with on a deep level. His respect and admiration for wrestling, this family, and what they went through is evident in “The Iron Claw.” With a thumping rock n’ roll soundtrack, plenty of in-ring entertainment, and captivating performances led by a never-been-better Efron, the story of the Von Erichs has finally and successfully been brought out of the documentary realm and made into a compelling narrative feature film. It may not be the overall champion of wrestling movies, but it packs quite a powerful punch to keep you down for the three count.