For all the glory of professional wrestling, a streak of tragedy casts a long shadow. The death and ghastly crime committed by Chris Benoit and the accident that took the life of Owen Hart are only two examples in a sea of bleak headlines. Vice even made its own TV show on this aspect of wrestling, The Dark Side of the Ring. Out of these stories, the tale of the Von Erich family, five brothers time and tragedy reduced to one, leaves a lasting impact. Bringing the Von Erichs to the big screen demands considerable tact. It’s relieving, then, that A24 and writer-director Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw relays the true story of the “Von Erich Curse” with great respect. Buoyed by transformative performances from its ensemble cast, The Iron Claw is a heartbreaking meditation on love and brotherhood bound to stick with audiences long after the credits have rolled.
Zac Efron stars as Kevin Von Erich, one of four brothers in Dallas, Texas raised by their father/coach Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) to be star wrestlers. Throughout the early 1980s, Kevin, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons) come to dominate the sport. Kevin meets the love of his life in Pam Adkisson (Lily James), and his relationship with his brothers grows stronger than ever. Unfortunately, a great tragedy turns the four brothers into three, setting off a chain of events that will gradually turn the triumphant legacy of the Von Erichs from All-American heroes into something much darker. As his father’s domineering iron grip prevents necessary healing, Kevin tries to hold on as his family spirals out of control.
Now, the discerning reader has likely noticed that earlier, it was stated that there were five Von Erich brothers and the summary claimed there were four. That’s not an error. For the sake of runtime, the youngest member of the family, Chris Von Erich, is cut out entirely. Decisions like these can sink a film and call in the ethics of such a project. Thankfully, The Iron Claw pays great respect, although not without intensity, to the Von Erichs it portrays. To take it a step further, the first act feels almost like a fawning love letter to the strength of the brothers as a family unit. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély captures them at their peak in a montage set to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” that frames them like icons, with nowhere to go but up.
Let it be known, though, that even from the beginning, The Iron Claw doesn’t shy away from the brutal reality of the situation. Sean Durkin and Holt McCallany do not portray the boys’ father, Fritz, as an outwardly cruel man, yet make it explicitly clear the level of control he has over his sons. McCallany’s excruciatingly authentic performance has him step into the role of a trainer, ordering around the brothers as a team he has to whip into shape rather than a loving father. Early on in the film, Kevin goes to his mother Doris (Maura Tierney) and shows concern for how tough Fritz is, only for her to say “that’s what your brothers are for.” And, as Durkin vividly shows, they were a vital support system for each other.
The Von Erich brothers are immensely likable characters from the outset. David is the natural born star of the group, Kerry exceedingly reliable, Mike the sensitive artist, and Kevin, well… Kevin’s the glue that holds them all together. It’s a joy simply to see them interact in various ways, such as when all three brothers go to support Mike at a house show he’s performing at. You forget, watching the movie, that the Von Erichs are doomed from the opening logos because Durkin and the ensemble cast do such a great job of endearing you to these boys… which makes the inevitable hit all the harder.
Once the first Von Erich passes away, The Iron Claw plays its hand as something of a cinematic car crash in slow motion. Seeing how the brothers handle tragedy is where a lot of the potent emotion comes from. As a newcomer, actor Stanley Simons shoulders a lot in his performance. He puts on a brave face and attempts to participate in the family legacy, but he simply doesn’t have the heart for it. A certain transformation of sorts that happens to Mike asks a tremendous deal of physical expression from Simons. In action, it’s gut wrenching. Meanwhile, The Bear star Jeremy Allen White positively seizes attention as a once well put-together athlete now falling apart, descending into rage and denial at what’s happening to his family.
The one who truly keeps The Iron Claw afloat at all times is Zac Efron in the most powerful performance of his career thus far. From the very beginning of the film, his intense love for his brothers is apparent. It’s all he talks about when he first meets Lily James’ Pam. It borders on naivete, his wide-eyed, simple Texas boy unprepared for the storm about to hit. The Iron Claw sees Efron’s Kevin attempt to hold on with all of his might, trying to keep a family together that is fractured beyond repair. Efron practically demands empathy as the attempt to suppress every possible emotion runs across his face. Particularly compelling is his relationship with Fritz, which mirrors Whiplash in a way, with the mentor figure pushing his pupil past his limits. Only this comes with a more recognizable kind of prodding rather than J.K. Simmons’ outright villain and instead of losing friendships, Kevin loses the chance to grieve.
Filmmaker Sean Durkin portrays Kevin as a human being trapped in a nightmare he can’t wake up from. Kevin is often kept at a great distance from the viewer in wide shots, giving the impression of his in the eye of a storm that doesn’t seem to be stopping soon. By all means, The Iron Claw is a tough sit. At times, it may as well be a death march, albeit a highly compelling one. Nonetheless, it makes a bold choice during the denouement to allow some light in. In the end, however, Durkin and Zac Efron show that healing is around the corner. The scars will always be there, and it won’t be easy, but the surviving Von Erichs will persevere. A simple moment, where Efron tearfully tells his kids who are wondering why he’s so emotional watching them play “I used to be a brother” says it all.
The Iron Claw will be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To wrestling fans, it’ll be a necessary biopic of a legendary family in the sport, authenticity bolstered by the involvement of the likes of Chavo Guerrero Jr., Maxwell John Friedman, and even the endorsement of the living Kevin Von Erich. To awards pundits, it’s an excellent ensemble showcase. Above all else, though, it’s a tale about the impact that family can have on you, the deep hole their loss can leave you in, and starting up the long journey out of that hole. The Iron Claw is exquisite human drama, plain and simple.