Discussing Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw, a dramatization of the lives of the Von Erich clan whose importance to professional wrestling has stretched across decades and multiple generations, in any great detail presents something of a conundrum. The most well-known permutation of the Von Erichs were made up of five adult brothers who wrestled professionally (streamlined to four by the film) predominantly out of a promotion based in Dallas in the ’80s and ’90s, owned and operated with an iron fist — which, unlike the film’s title, is not a nickname for a grappling move — by Fritz, the family patriarch and himself a former wrestler. The reason the Von Erichs are infamous, and the subject of a major motion picture, is the unfathomable number of tragedies endured by the family, which is colloquially referred to by wrestling fans as the “Von Erich curse.” And therein lies the rub: the film amounts to a slow-moving car wreck where unspeakable misfortune befalls decent people repeatedly, and much of its power is in subjecting oneself to loss and despair that seemingly has no end. Those already aware of the alleged curse will anticipate everything that happens within the film and, while appreciating the respect with which the subject matter is treated in addition to the lovingly recreated era, must make their peace with a thudding inevitably which precludes much in the way of drama. These people never stood a chance, and the experience of watching their lives play out holds the predetermination of watching lambs being led to slaughter. Everyone else is better off going in knowing as little about real life events as possible. At least they’ll have surprise going for them.
Bearing that in mind, it’s best to stick to broad strokes. We learn early on that Fritz (the great character actor, Holt McCallany) treats the parenting of his boys the way professional wrestling treats championship title shots: with an ever-changing hierarchy of who is the favorite. Eldest Kevin (Zac Efron, in a startling physical transformation, disappearing under a Dorothy Hamill haircut and so much musculature his neck all but recedes into his torso) and third son David (Triangle of Sadness’ Harris Dickinson) are already wrestling on the local circuit, often paired as a tag team which allows the latter’s formidable “mic work” during pre- and post-match promotions to overshadow the former. Middle brother Kerry (Jeremy Allen White, similarly no slouch in transforming his body into an Adonis-like form) is training in the discus throw for the 1980 Summer Olympics, but a U.S. boycott of the games derails those plans, and soon the tag team is a trio of Von Erich boys. And lastly there’s the baby, teenager Mike (Stanley Simons), who’s quiet and of smaller build than his brothers and would seem to prefer to play the guitar than take bumps in the ring, but he too will be called into service at the urging of Fritz. Meanwhile, matriarch Doris (Maura Tierney) understands her place, making sure the boys are fed and respectful, but as far as what happens in the ring, well that’s strictly Fritz’s domain.
Fritz emerges as the dominant figure in The Iron Claw, which makes a certain amount of sense as it’s not-so-secretly a “bad dad” story. The iron claw hold, patented by Fritz and passed down to his children, involves clenching an opponent around the temples and jawline and exerting such physical pressure it forces its recipient to submit, which makes for a handy metaphor for his approach to parenting. Fritz understands hardness and brute force, and views his sons largely as a means of building his wrestling empire, employing a “next man up” philosophy that’s particularly sickening once the aforementioned tragedies begin to afflict the family at semi-regular intervals. Kerry’s inability to compete in the Moscow Olympics all but demands a personal apology for letting dad down (as though he had anything to do with Russia invading Afghanistan), which is swiftly exploited by Fritz to roll another physical specimen into his troupe of performers. When Kevin briefly falters in the ring after suffering a rib injury during a match, Fritz doesn’t hesitate in elevating second-favorite son David over his older brother into the role of number one title contender. In the Von Erichs, there is no daylight between business and family, and the wellbeing of the promotion always comes before that of Fritz’s boys.
Unlike Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler or this past fall’s underseen Cassandro, Durkin plays up the mythical qualities of professional wrestling rather than pulling back the curtain too far on the business of setting matches and kayfabe (AKA, the acknowledgment that the sport is staged and winners and losers are determined in advance by the promoters). On a first date with future-wife Pam (Lily James, really playing up the “aint you sweet as pie,” all-American wholesomeness), Kevin gets indignant when asked if wrestling is fake, equating winning bouts to getting a job promotion for performance. Matches routinely spiral out of control with unrehearsed violence and little recognition that combatants are essentially colleagues working from scripts. Fritz even rides his boys — Kevin in particular — for failing to win more convincingly or shrug off debilitating injuries as though they have any actual control over it, an echo of Kerry and the Olympics. Instead, we get expressionistic displays of high-flying combat where crowds vanish into the shadows and the perspiration hangs heavily in the air (Raging Bull would appear to be an important visual influence here). Durkin has the advantage of working with actors who, in addition to their muscles, have clearly put the time in training between the ropes, which allows the film to stage matches at length with minimal cutaways to stunt doubles. There’s a kineticism to the athleticism with the actors literally throwing themselves into the fray and off the top turnbuckle which goes a long way toward muddying the waters about just how fake this stuff is anyway.
The sort of earnestness and a willingness to give the audience what they want permeates The Iron Claw, and puts it at odds with the rest of Durkin’s filmography. Previous films Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Nest were defined by their chilliness and more elliptical qualities, but The Iron Claw not only plays things straight down the middle, but it becomes an outright tearjerker in its homestretch. We get many a scene of the Von Erichs playing tag football on the family ranch under warm Texas sunlight, eating barbecue, and crashing house parties (truly, some peak good ol’ boy cinema) while eliding the more harrowing realities and coping methods of taking a beating for a living. The Von Erichs inner demons are ever present and invariably get the best of them, but just as the boys would never dare to confront Fritz directly, the film takes a sideways approach to the sort of self-medication and self-destructive behavior that’s sadly become a hallmark of professional wrestling. Durkin’s most daring conceit is to play all the tragedy offscreen, focusing instead on the disorienting aftermath and the sobering realization that nothing will ever be the same again. This is most effective in the treatment of Kerry’s traumatic 1986 motorcycle accident, only glancingly alluded to until the true nature of how devastating it was is finally revealed in full.
However, Durkin never makes the case for the Von Erichs being compelling figures because of who they are or what they accomplished, but rather for the inexplicable–on–the–surface tragedies that were visited upon them. And make no mistake, The Iron Claw is a capital-T tragedy of sons desperate to prove their worth to a father who, no matter how much his children bled for him, was incapable of being satisfied. But the Von Erich boys feel fundamentally unknowable and incomplete — Efron’s Kevin is, for understandable reasons, the most fully realized creation in the ensemble — as though their personalities were unable to develop in tandem with their pecs and biceps. All these boys ever wanted was to wrestle and make their dad proud, and perhaps that is as much a tragedy as everything else in the film. The loss of innocents and potential unrealized because of the crushing weight of unrealistic expectations is always good for an ugly cry — the film’s final five minutes all but demand it — but it comes a little too easily. The question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” requires an answer less pat than “toxic masculinity, of course.”
DIRECTOR: Sean Durkin; CAST: Zac Efron, Holt McCallany, Jeremy Allen White, Harrison Dickinson; DISTRIBUTOR: A24; IN THEATERS: December 22; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 10 min.