The Iron Claw
Strong performances and atmosphere carry this dark fable of wrestling history.
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I am by no means a connoisseur of professional wrestling, nor am I especially familiar with its history. Prior to seeing this film’s trailer, I’d never heard of the Von Erich brothers, and I was unaware of their fates, aside from what wrestling fans around me had hinted at when telling me, “Don’t look it up. Just watch the movie.”
So that’s what I did. I went into this film completely blind, almost as if it were a fictitious tale based on nothing. Of course, it’s not—the Von Erich family, and the tragic fates that befell them, are a pillar of pro-wrestling history; a cautionary tale about harsh and abusive parenting, and the dangers of pushing children too hard for professional success.
From the beginning, The Iron Claw haunts its subject matter with the specter of hindsight. There is a looming sense of dread that precedes any of the actual tragedies themselves, and pervades almost every conversation between two characters. Director Sean Durkin is keenly aware of the place this story holds in wrestling culture, and assumes in his presentation of the events that you have at least a peripheral understanding that this story does not end well.
It’s perhaps the most sensible way to approach the material, given that the tragedies the family experienced (widely referred to as “The Von Erich Curse”) is what they are most famous for—more so even than their actual careers in the business. But I can’t help but wonder if this relentless, nearly-mythical sense of doom undercuts the humanity of the real-life figures being portrayed.
The story is primarily focused on Kevin Von Erich (played by an impossibly jacked Zac Efron), the second-eldest of five brothers, filling the role of eldest in the absence of firstborn son, Jack, Jr., who died as a child. Their father, Jack (Holt McCallany), who went by “Fritz Von Erich” in the arena, was a respected wrestler who is now orchestrating his sons’ careers as they come of age.
The boys vie for their hardass father’s attention and respect by training and strengthening themselves day in and day out. Jack’s goal for his sons is that each of them would win the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) championship title. The cost of achieving that goal? “Tough love.” No rest. Constant improvement. Stern scolding when a match doesn’t go your way, regardless of whether or not it was in your control.
Over the course of the film, we see this method of raising children, as athletes first and foremost, begin to wear on the brothers. Kevin struggles with being the eldest but playing second fiddle to his younger brother Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) in his father’s eyes. Kerry manages the pressures of being an Olympic-level athlete (and Dad’s favorite) by indulging his drug addiction and pushing through serious injuries. David (Harris Dickinson) has to balance wanting to support Kevin’s turbulent career with coming into his own as an effective showman himself. And Mike, the youngest (Stanley Simons)—well, he’s a string-bean with more interest in music than wrestling, so he barely registers on his father’s radar.
An early conversation while on a first date with his eventual wife Pam (Lily James) reveals that Kevin feels the same sense of impending dread that we, the audience, have picked up on. He cites Jack, Jr.’s death as evidence of the Curse, and fears a similar fate is awaiting him and his brothers.
It’s these moments in the film that took me out a bit. I’m not familiar enough with the family’s history to know if the “Von Erich Curse” was a superstition already believed by the members of the family before they really started racking up the tragedies, but having Kevin so explicitly comment on the doom that shrouds his family’s future so early on in the film almost feels like making light of the horrible real-life factors that led to the fates that befell them. And this is Kevin’s major psychological hangup throughout the film—that his family is cursed and he shouldn’t try to love someone, let someone in, or raise a child, for fear that he may spread this curse.
Now, the real Kevin Von Erich has said he does not believe in the curse. Maybe he did at one point; I don’t know. And perhaps this wouldn’t feel like a problem with the storytelling if I didn’t know it was based on a real story. But I do. At times, it almost feels as if the film is actively suggesting the curse was real, which would seemingly oppose the rational notion that the actual “curse” was Jack’s dogshit parenting and the emotional traumas he inflicted on his sons.
I’m not saying Durkin believes in the curse or that he’s unaware of the deep psychological scars that can be left by bad parenting. There are enough scenes emphasizing Jack’s failures as a father to make it abundantly clear that the movie knows what the real problem at the heart of the family was. But The Iron Claw often feels at odds with itself, at times wanting to be a sobering examination of family structure and real-life tragedy, and at others aiming for this mythical retelling of the fall of gods, dressed up in abstract and supernatural terrors.
It’s an interesting and enrapturing atmosphere to experience, but I’m not sure it’s terribly successful or meaningful. It doesn’t help that the atmosphere and aesthetic are the film’s most striking aspects. Sure, what happens to these brothers is terribly sad, but it’s already sad as a piece of real-life history. It doesn’t really need stylistic embellishment to make it sad. What the film brings to the table is its dark, foreboding tone and grainy, retro aesthetic, both of which are done beautifully but don’t exactly make a rich experience by themselves.
The performances by Efron, McCallany, White, and Dickinson also help give the film some weight. Each actor feels at home in the hard exteriors and turbulent interiors of these characters, and Efron gets to play in that turmoil more than the rest. Even when the writing—which regularly rings false, occasionally even bordering on silly—fails to give a scene the necessary impact, Efron is there to be your empathy magnet.
All told, The Iron Claw is a shaky, sometimes misguided retelling of an infamous piece of wrestling history held together by its engrossing atmosphere and strong players. I don’t know that it’s quite the retelling the Von Erichs deserve, but it’s a compelling enough access point for the uninitiated.