Gemma grasps with Sean Durkin’s biopic The Iron Claw.
The Iron Claw opens on a violent scene in the world of professional wrestling as Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) pummels a fellow wrestler in the ring. He performs his signature move, the Iron Claw, sweating, face contorted in fury. Despite being long in the tooth, Fritz proclaims he’s still going to “make it”. He overspends on a fancy car, as his young family lives in a trailer in the parking lot. Fritz proclaims to his wife and boys that if you are the toughest and the strongest, nothing could ever hurt you. But nothing could be the furthest from the truth.
Written and directed by Sean Durkin, The Iron Claw delivers a tense and emotional narrative that delves into the pressures and costs of athleticism, told via the dynamics of the infamous real-life Von Erich family. In 1979, the Von Erich brothers are now all grown up, and the weight of their father’s unfulfilled ambition weighs heavy on their muscular shoulders. The oldest, strongest and next in line in the wrestling hierarchy is Kevin (Zac Efron), who works alongside his brother David (Harris Dickinson) in the ring as local celebrities. David is sharp witted and better at holding a crowd, some of the many judgements Fritz doles out to his sons, along with informing them the ranking of who’s his favourite on a regular basis.
Always looking out for his brothers, Kevin complains to his mother Doris (Maura Tierney) that Fritz is too hard on the youngest (and his least favourite), Mike (Stanley Simons). Mike’s determined not to follow in the family footsteps, and secretly pursues his passion of music. When they’re not training, jamming, or in the ring, these three brothers enjoy each other’s company, often outdoors drinking beers in the glorious weather of the South. After a match while signing autographs, Kevin meets Pam Adkisson (Lily James). She asks him out and, enamoured by Kevin’s innocent sweetness, the pair fall quickly in love. Fritz’s obsession with his sons winning the title he couldn’t, causes fractures in the family, which are heightened by the return of Kerry Von Erich (Jeremy Allen White) who also takes up the family mantle.
While still delivering a satisfying amount of action set pieces for the genre, The Iron Claw provides a sensitivity and nuance that doesn’t always exist in sporting biopics. Durkin’s examination of these characters is empathetic. He makes the interesting choice against focusing on their larger-than-life achievements, which only serve as a backdrop to the family dynamics and their interpersonal politics. Each of the ensemble, even Fitz and Doris, are wholly realised. The forced line of succession and shifting favouritism, and how each of the brothers break under the pressure, spotlights the real darkness of Fritz’s unrelenting pressure. There is a complicit yet sympathetic nature to Maura Tierney’s incarnation of Doris; she’s detached and places a deep – and frankly unfounded – faith in god, given everything that happens to her family over the course of the film.
This should come with a trigger warning. There is one scene that’s quite problematic. After a violent suicide, there’s a beat, a sequence of magic realism presumably told from Kevin’s mind’s eye, that shows the victim finally finding the peace that was never their’s in life. It’s a heartbreaking emotional moment for sure, but perhaps not considered in terms of how it can be perceived by anyone with suicidal ideation.
The weight of the story hangs justified on the tentpole of some very wonderful and warm performances. Both complex and very literal, the characters of Kevin and Doris present with similar neurodiverse qualities, although Doris is cold, while Kevin embodies warmth and loyalty. Having bulked to an enormous size, Zac Efron is unrecognisable from his early career roles. Harris Dickinson and Jeremy Allen White as David and Kerry respectively struggle with their own ambitions in very different ways. Stanley Simons holds his own in a cast of heavyweights. Finally – Holt McCallany is a true force, the tense antagonist who’s equal parts dark and charismatic.
A meditation on fame, resilience, family, and the flawed pursuit of the so called American Dream, The Iron Claw is a compelling if not overwhelming watch. It offers another glimpse into the brutal world of professional wrestling and the deep personal cost that goes along with it.
The Iron Claw is in cinemas from 9th February 2024.