The Iron Claw (R) ★★★

Review Date: December 26th, 2023

Spoiler Alert: The review discusses things that are part of the established historical record but which may be unknown to anyone not familiar with the subject matter.

One could be forgiven believing that a movie about the most successful family in the history of wrestling - the Von Erichs - would fall into the "sports film" category. Although the 2023 feature from Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) occasionally borrows tropes from that well-worn genre, this is more of a straightforward drama about brotherhood, the weight of unreasonable expectations, and the toxic influence of a despotic father. Wrestling forms the backdrop for these things but The Iron Claw isn't interested in generating suspense about who wins a particular match and it doesn't ride a climactic wave to a big victory. In fact, some of the most important matches either aren't shown or are only briefly recreated.

The movie is loosely based on the life of the wrestling Von Erichs - father Fritz (Holt McCallany), eldest son Kevin (Zac Efron) and his three brothers: Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simmons). Durkin's screenplay takes numerous considerable latitude with his subjects. One brother, Chris, has been excised from the cinematic portrait; ditto for various spouses and children. Only Kevin's wife, Pam (Lily James), makes the final cut. The time frame has been constricted and contorted. Durkin cherry-picks details from the real-life story as they fit his narrative needs and creates fictional moments as necessary. The end result is affecting but shouldn't be mistaken for an accurate behind-the-scenes representation of the Von Erichs.

The Iron Claw is told mainly through the viewpoint of Kevin, the oldest son of former wrestling great Fritz and devout Catholic Doris (Maura Tierney). When we meet him in the late 1970s, he is perceived as the most likely candidate to achieve Fritz's overwhelming desire - to bring a title belt to the family. In a telling scene, Fritz lists his sons in order of favoritism: Kerry (who is training for the Olympics), Kevin, David, and Mike (who is more interested in eating than working out). Fritz generously notes that the order could always change, though. We learn that he's serious as Kevin gradually loses ground despite courting his father's favor with a fervor that borders on obsessive.

Early in the film, Fritz comes across as a "good" father - supportive if a little domineering. As the story progresses, however, we learn that he is driven not by the desire to build up his sons but by a craving for glory, even if it's of the reflective variety. When Kevin is injured in a match, Fritz's overwhelming concern is that he didn't immediately get back to his feet. He greets the death of child after child with a stony detachment because "real men don't cry." Kevin, never able to meet his father's expectations, leads a life of grief. His salvation comes through Pam and the children he shares with her. Meanwhile, David, Mike, and Kerry battle their own demons, all of which (in one way or another) have their roots in Fritz's demanding parenting. A curse (that the sons believe in) hangs over the family like a tangible shadow.

The cast is strong but no one will get more notice (rightfully) than Zac Efron. Following in the footsteps of numerous great performers who completely transform their physique to meet the needs of a role, Efron has bulked up to enormous proportions to believably play Kevin. On acting merits alone, Efron's portrayal is strong enough to generate Oscar buzz but, whether or not he is nominated, this part illustrates his range better than any previous opportunity. He has come a long way from the teen heartthrob period engendered by his appearance in High School Musical and its sequels.

There are times when Durkin struggles with narrative consistency. Although attempts are made to flesh out the three younger brothers, those are less successful than one might hope. Kerry achieves a semblance of three-dimensionality but neither David nor Mike emerges fully enough to be more than a catalyst to metastasize the emotional cancer growing within the family. Certain transitions are jarring (not surprising considering the time frame the film spans) and there's a misguided "afterlife" scene whose artificiality brings the movie to a grinding halt.

One of the small pleasures of The Iron Claw comes from the way in which it pulls back the curtain to provide insights into the "fakery" that exists within wrestling. On their first date, Kevin explains the reality to Pam and we later see supposedly mortal opponents joking with one another and discussing storylines. Overall, however, while the behind-the-scenes elements add color, the way in which Durkin navigates the warped family dynamics provides The Iron Claw with its fuel and energy. This is an American tragedy. Although the participants may be famous, the demons they fight in their intimate moments are familiar and relatable.

© 2023 James Berardinelli