In the opening flashback scene of The Iron Claw, the patriarch of a Texas family meets up with his wife and two young sons outside a wrestling arena where he has just pulverized an opponent using the signature vise-like skull grip that gives the film its title. The boys sit in rapt attention in the backseat of the car, hanging off their father’s every word as he makes a solemn promise to their mother that once he wins the world championship title, their hard times will be behind them.
There’s a pleasing economy to that set-up, establishing the family dynamic of a man ruled by a monomaniacal focus, a stoical woman who keeps her distance from his professional pursuits, and hero-worshipping sons who seem a safe bet to try to emulate their dad in the ring.
The Iron Claw
The Bottom Line
No smackdown but ekes out a win on points.
Release date: Friday, Dec. 22
Cast: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Holt McCallany, Lily James, Stanley Simons
Director-screenwriter: Sean Durkin
2 hours 18 minutes
Anyone who followed American professional wrestling in the 1980s and early ‘90s will be familiar with the devastating story of the Von Erich clan, relentlessly driven to dominate the sport by the wrestler-turned-promoter and coach who took the name Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany). But the cost was enormous, enough to break most families, and the fact that one son, Kevin (Zac Efron) — whose perspective is the story’s narrative lens — endured at all despite unimaginable pain and loss and grief tempers the film’s sorrow with notes of resilience and hard-won peace.
One self-avowed fan of wrestling in that era is Sean Durkin, who speaks of The Iron Claw as a passion project. Paradoxically, however, it turns out to be the writer-director’s least distinctive film, no match for the haunting power of Martha Marcy May Marlene, about a young woman re-entering life after escaping from a cult; or the lingering unease of The Nest, a piercing excavation of rot beneath the surface of a bourgeois marriage. Admittedly, those are high bars to clear.
Durkin’s third feature is more than competently executed, with a solid ensemble cast and a vivid sense of place and time, without overdoing the needle drops. But considering the shattering blows delivered to the Von Erichs at regular intervals throughout the story, its emotional impact feels oddly muted. At least that’s the case until the final stretch, and even then, the pervasive sadness feels less fluidly woven into the drama than conveyed in isolated scenes — a mother unable to put on her black funeral dress one more time; a brother broken by the fates of his siblings but receiving comfort from the pure love of his own sons.
It’s almost as if the constraints of portraying real people and the responsibility of showing respect for their suffering has held back Durkin’s willingness for psychological exploration.
Early on, Fritz freely admits over the dinner table to his four assembled sons that he has his favorites. “But the rankings can always change. Everyone can work their way up or down.” That should provide the template for a drama in which fraternal bonds go head to head with sibling rivalry. Instead, the relationships among the brothers mostly feel under-sketched, their individual characters lacking dimension.
There’s a gorgeous shot of them laughing together as they float along a river on an inflatable raft, but otherwise, the sense of an inseparable unit is thinly drawn, suggesting the material might have been a better fit for limited-series treatment.
Even at two hours-plus, there’s not enough breathing space between tragedies to allow them to resonate to the extent they should. Durkin has his hands full just chronicling the staggering run of misfortunes that causes Kevin to fear a family curse. So larger themes such as the blind belief in American exceptionalism, the delusions of masculine invincibility, the suppression of grief and the suffocation of a father’s ambitions for his sons don’t fully cohere. Durkin references Greek tragedy in his conception of the film, but that element within the wrestling milieu was more persuasively suggested in Foxcatcher.
Tragedy already hangs over the family when the mainframe drama begins, with memories of the first-born son of Fritz and his wife Doris (Maura Tierney), Jack Jr., who died in a freak accident at age six. Fritz’s attentions have settled on Kevin, who has talent in the ring, but lacks the mouthy braggadocio of a true showman on the mic, something in which his younger brother David (Harris Dickinson) excels.
His championship dreams eclipsed by David, Kevin is passed over again when next-in-line Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), a promising athlete, sees his Olympic hopes dashed by the 1980 U.S. boycott and takes up wrestling with fierce commitment. Finally, youngest son Mike (newcomer Stanley Simons), an easy-breezy kid whose college garage-band pursuits make him seem immune to the cauldron of testosterone and unsuited to competitive sports, gets bitten by the family bug. Or injected with it by his father.
A sixth son, Chris, is omitted from this retelling, perhaps reasoning that audiences could only take so much. As a wrenching American heartland saga, The Iron Claw is certainly compelling, and to anyone unfamiliar with the Von Erichs’ history, each jolt of fresh anguish delivered to the family will be startling.
The most forceful concentration of pathos centers on Kerry. Durkin’s script gets a bit heavy-handed with the foreshadowing by having Kevin ominously tell his brother, “Be careful,” as Kerry takes off on his motorcycle to unwind after a big win. But what follows is revealed with shocking effectiveness. White builds on his brooding persona on The Bear to draw a man retreating deeper and deeper within himself, at first with anger, then belligerent determination and lastly, defeat.
Efron’s Incredible Hulk-like transformation and shaggy wig are distracting, but the actor gives the film a poignant center of raw hurt, the irony being that Kevin is spared the outcome of his brothers because of his drop in their father’s ranking. He has lovely scenes with Lily James, making light work of a twangy accent as Texas rose Pam, a rock of support and solace, whose marriage to Kevin provides him with a pathway to rebuild himself, albeit not without the roadblocks of trauma. Kevin’s insistence on christening their first son with his father’s real name, Adkisson, indicates the depths of his fear of the Von Erich curse.
McCallany impresses with the nuance of a performance that shows the toughened, overbearing man who refuses to let grief derail his plans, but also a father firmly convinced that his iron claw is lifting the family up, not pulling them down. “We cannot let this tragedy define us,” Fritz tells his sons after the first ruinous loss of their adult lives. “Our greatness will be measured by our triumph in adversity.” Neither Durkin nor McCallany is without compassion for Fritz’s self-deception and its terrible toll on the family.
It’s great to see the too-long undervalued Tierney back on screen in a heartbreaking role. Aside from Kevin, Doris is the only immediate family member who allows herself to grieve. Having believed she could protect her sons with prayer, she’s crushed by the failure of that faith, and despite choosing from the outset to separate herself from the family’s wrestling obsession, it’s arguably Doris who is hit hardest by its pileup of casualties.
Durkin cites Raging Bull and The Deer Hunter as inspirations; there are faint echoes of the former in the fallout of violence as entertainment, and the latter in the mournful unraveling of male camaraderie as innocence is lost. If the horrific magnitude of the family’s experience somehow falls short, the film doesn’t stint on the visceral impact of scenes in the ring, which are the root of both triumph and desolation. As he showed on Son of Saul, Hungarian DP Mátyás Erdély is skilled at making tight spaces into dynamic canvases, and his shooting of the “squared circle” is loaded with the symbolic weight of a place where dreams are built and broken.
The film shows the performative aspects of wrestling, the fakery of villainously exaggerated fight personae in the Von Erich boys’ opponents and also in their joking rapport when not in the public eye. In one moving moment early on, Kevin is slammed down hard on concrete outside the ring, the damage to his back evident in the time it takes him to get on his feet again. Fritz’s blistering rebuke over that delay seals Kevin’s downgrade as a championship contender. The scene also reveals that despite all the posturing showmanship involved, all the bluster and brawn, the stakes are real.
As Kevin recalls in voiceover, Fritz instilled a belief in his sons that if they were the toughest, the fastest, the strongest, nothing could ever hurt them. The dismantling of that belief in the face of all-too-human physical and psychological vulnerability is ultimately what makes the uneven but heartfelt film affecting.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter