Sean Durkin’s searing new drama focuses on the incredible story of the Von Erich Brothers, who became heavyweights in the wrestling world, but were dogged by personal tragedy.
In a world of big hair, big outfits and even bigger egos, pro-wrestlers know you’ve got to have a gimmick to stand out. Fritz Von Erich – formerly Jack Adkisson – understood this, having trained under legendary promoter Stu Hart, who gave him his sporting monicker and paired him up with keyfabe brother Walter “Waldo Von Erich” Sieber as, er, a villainous Nazi double act. While he achieved modest success in his own right, Fritz would come into his own as the patriarch of the Von Erich family, encouraging his sons Kevin, David, Kerry, Mike and Chris to follow him into the ring.
Sadly tragedy loomed large in the Von Erich family – five of Fritz and his wife Doris’s sons, including Jack Jr who died in an accident when he was six-years-old, would die between 1959 and 1993, three by suicide. These events led to speculation about a Von Erich family curse, but in actuality highlight the pitfalls of professional wrestling, as well as the immense expectations placed upon the Von Erich boys by their father.
It’s easy to understand what appealed about the Von Erich story to Sean Durkin, whose previous two features deal similarly in familial tensions and self-mythologising. Martha Marcy May Marlene‘s haunting exploration of a young woman’s recovery after leaving a cult announced Elizabeth Olsen to audiences, while The Nest was anchored by stunning performances by Carrie Coon and Jude Law. His work deftly balances rigorous acting with sparing dialogue that sometimes verges on austere; The Iron Claw – named for the Von Erichs’ signature wrestling move – seems to hint at this relationship between the natural and uncanny.
Zac Efron, erstwhile Disney kid who’s been quietly turning in compelling, underseen performances amid more typical roles, plays Kevin Von Erich, the eldest surviving and “second favourite” son. A sweet, paternal youngster with the physique of He-Man and mahogany spray tan of a Love Island contestant, he just wants to make his family proud, which for Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) means following in his footsteps. Kevin pushes himself physically, even if he’s always loved his family more than his loves wrestling, but achieves some success, which grows once he’s joined in the ring by little brother David (Harris Dickinson), who proves to have more of a natural flair for the sport. He takes to the showboating, theatrical nature of wrestling like a duck to water, and while at first Kevin is proud to be continuing the Von Erich dynasty, Fritz has a nasty habit of pitting his sons against one another.
Tensions only grow when Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) steps into the ring, freshly back in Texas after his dreams of Olympic glory are dashed by the USA’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. While the brothers love one another dearly, their father’s relentless pursuit of glory drives a constant wedge between them, as well as between Kevin and his girlfriend Pam (Lily James) who is patient and supportive of his career but can’t understand why he remains under his father’s thumb. McCallany plays Fritz as a tyrant, steely-eyed and stony-faced, only rewarding his sons with a kind word when they win a match. To show interest in anything other than wrestling – such as youngest son Mikey’s (Stanley Simons) hopes of pursuing a music career – is to risk his wrath.
The brothers, meanwhile, are still devoted to each other, sweet and simple and soft outside of the spandex, supporting their wins and losses even when personalities clash. Yet they remain within their father’s grip, constantly battling for agency and unable to express their frustration and heartbreak, such is the power of paternity in their world. Durkin deftly contrasts the high camp of the wrestling world, with its ostentatious costumes and soap opera storylines, with the stifling traditional ideas of masculinity and familial duty which tore the Von Erichs apart, but is careful to show that there was a lot of love that existed within their unit as well as pain and anger. Efron, Dickinson and Allen White are particularly compelling, still boyish and vulnerable while whipping around the ring in impressive displays of choreography and smacktalking their opponents. The trio of performances, impressive in their restraint and emotional intelligence, bow differentially under the mighty dark cloud that is McCallany’s equally impressive, genuinely horrifying turn.
An electrifyingly 80s soundtrack selection and Jennifer Starzyk’s period accurate costume work create a sense of the great joy that wrestling brought to the Von Erichs, while Mátyás Erdély (who also shot The Nest) captures the dry heat and hazy Texan sunshine’s sharp contrast to the bright lights of the auditorium. As in all the best sports movies, there’s a wonderful kineticism to his cinematography, revelling in physical toil, but just as keen to reflect the moments of personal turmoil – the pain and the glory that seemed inextricable to the Von Erichs.
The Iron Claw doesn’t quite record the full extent of the family’s trauma – the story omits youngest son, Chris, who was unable achieve success due to health issues despite his great love of wrestling, and he died by suicide at the age of 21 after three of his brothers had already passed. In an interview with Variety Durkin admitted he had written a script that included Chris, but “there was a repetition to it, and it was one more tragedy that the film couldn’t really withstand.” While this version of events is perhaps not as accurate, its emotional honesty and narrative sincerity is unquestionable. It’s an incredibly heavy and sobering film, but one that has been made in the spirit of paying tribute to the Von Erich boys. Their dedication, passion and love for one another shines through, emphasising that the dogged pursuit of glory alone is no guarantee of it, and all of them deserved so much better than the hand they were dealt.
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Published 8 Feb 2024
Great director, great cast, great subject. Let’s go!
A cast firing on all cylinders. Magnificent, Shakespearian tragedy.
Durkin and Dickinson are two of the best working today.