The Iron Claw review – underpowered drama dulls impact of real-life wrestling tragedy
The Iron Claw, written and directed by Sean Durkin, takes its name from the signature move by Fritz Von Erich. The wrestling persona created by Jack Adkisson in the 1950s: an unmovable grip on the face, tight pressure on both temples, paralyzing an opponent to the ground. The move would certainly hurt if applied with effort but, as with most of professional wrestling. It’s hard to tell the line between feat of athleticism and performance, real pressure and theatrics.
Which should be interesting territory for Durkin, whose two previous features, the eerie cult psycho-drama Martha Marcy May Marlene. 80s-set The Nest are unnerving tangles of the real and imagined, strange comminglings of the supernatural, psychological and social. Like The Nest, The Iron Claw depicts the dissolution of a family under financial pressure – in this case, the real-life Von Erich lineage in American professional wrestling begun by the imposing Fritz (Holt McCallany) and wife Doris (an underused Maura Tierney) and continued by their sons. As with Durkin’s other characters, the Von Erichs are afflicted with paranoia (or a reaction to it): that the so-called family “curse” – a sports legend of hardship, injury, malaise and death in certain segments of the US – will come for them.
But whereas Durkin’s other work is twisty, non-linear, shifting between time or viewpoint, The Iron Claw is relatively straightforward and, despite a roster of committed performances, frustratingly opaque. The story is bookended by musings on the curse by Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron), Fritz’s second-oldest son, sole survivor of five brothers and our guide through this A24-produced tale of sports success and woe in 1980s Texas. (The oldest son, Jack Jr, died in a freak accident at age six, an early-stage manifestation of the “curse”.)
Efron, with his newly prominent jaw and muscles nearly bursting out of their sinews, looks and moves like a man uncomfortable in his skin. The impression befits the role – Kevin is Fritz’s true student of wrestling (and thus recipient of the brunt of his ambitions and insecurities). Yet the least naturally suited of the brothers to the sport’s demands of showmanship and bravado. Helpfully for the uninitiated, Kevin explains the system of wrestling championships – a belt is basically an award for performance. On a first date with Pam (Lily James), the woman summarily hurried through the steps of spectator, suitor, girlfriend, strained wife.
The Iron Claw initially revels in the campy dramatics. Base pleasures of pre-WWE professional wrestling with a remarkably vivid sense of place. The Sportatorium mini-arena where Fritz Von Erich hosted his own tournament circuit. In Dallas is both dingy local watering hole and a spectacle of triumph to a few thousand regulars. Durkin’s sly camerawork and deft sound design capture the propulsive sensations of professional wrestling. Enough to flinch at the performers’ physical extremity and pain but not so much to drive the squeamish away. And there’s a slick energy to the homespun, genuine charm that made the brothers – Kevin, David (Harris Dickinson, the most compelling of the bunch). Kerry (The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White) and Mike (Stanley Simons) – successful, a renowned family in wrestling.
That is, until things start devolving, and the film becomes a grim procession of tragedies, devastating in abstract but. Given little space to land despite its two-hour, 12-minute runtime, hard to really feel. Which is unbelievable for just how much pain this family went through. Durkin presents the legendary curse as part superstition, driving Kevin from his apartment for fear of infecting Pam. Their young child with misfortune, part reality – what else explains all this suffering? – and most interestingly, as a code and cover for mental illness in a predominantly male family.
And yet, so much of it is at a remove; with the exception of Kevin. We spend minimal time with each brother and learn little beyond their persona within in the family. Same, too, for Fritz, who manages to say he’s proud of his sons. But is, at core, hard, harsh and uncompromising. And even for professional wrestling, which in the film’s latter montages becomes difficult to understand as a sport. The line between genuine pain and performance more confusing than provocative.
Still, the Von Erichs endured so much loss, and Durkin manages to convey some of it. There’s a palpable emptiness, a muted quality, to the second half of the film. As Kevin finds himself increasingly alone and Efron plays a man who, without family, is without a compass. The final scene should bring any feeling human to tears, but for a story this tragic, you’d hope for more.
The Iron Claw is released in US cinemas on 22 December and in the UK on 9 February 2024