The Iron Claw | Efron Delivers Career-best Performance in Heart-rending Wrestling Melodrama

If you’ve ever seen a Sean Durkin film in the cinema, chances are you left the screening with a sizable pit in your stomach. Durkin doesn’t just seem to enjoy the deeply miserable, he thrives in it. He helped launch Elizabeth Olsen’s career with his excellent debut Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, a psychological drama about the mental anguish of attempting to compartmentalize the trauma of a past life in an abusive cult. His follow-up The Nest, about a family who relocate to Thatcher-era London at the whim of a petulant male provider, sure doesn’t sound as bleak but ends up a portrait of broken man whose deluded belief in “self-made” success rots him to the core. 

It really is saying something then, that the emotionally bruising, sometimes transcendent, The Iron Claw is Durkin’s most heart-rending film yet. To be fair to the filmmaker, the impossible-to-believe story of the Von Erich wrestling dynasty just so happens to be true, so we can’t chastise the man for conjuring up another bummer out of thin air. To give him further credit still, he actually removed one of the family members from his film out of fear that including them would simply be too much ridiculous despair to swallow for audiences. Even for casual fans of professional wrestling, the life of the Von Erichs is stuff of folklore. It has all the prophetic tragedy of Greek myth but wrapped in a contemporary tale of death, psychological abuse, and familial disintegration.

We’re in Texas and it’s the late 1970’s. After a career in which he never got a shot at ‘the title’, patriarch and former wrestler Fritz Von Erich continues to pursue his dream vicariously through his four sons. He even goes as far as passing on his signature, The Iron Claw, to his children. The move in question involves–or at least is meant to appear to involve–the wrestler using his open palm to exert a great amount of pressure on the head of their opponent. It doesn’t take detailed analysis to find the metaphorical possibilities in that. 

The Iron Claw is partly a film about pressure, specifically the intense pressures associated with the rigorous pursuit of the hypermasculine ideal. It’s a pursuit that brothers Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons) end up paying bitterly for. Durkin has explored the callous collateral damage of male insecurities before (see John Hawkes’ terrifying cult leader in Martha May..), but here it hangs over the narrative like an ever-darkening storm cloud. 


Take an early dinner table scene where Fritz openly ranks his love for his four sons with all of them present, but makes sure to inform them that the ranking can “always change”. This sets up the brutal, Randian hierarchy within the family unit. What’s really remarkable about the moment, however, isn’t the high drama of it all but rather the lack therefore of. We get the sense this could be an everyday occurrence. The emotional support offered by both parents is equally inadequate, with the sons being told on more than one occasion to sort any pressing, interpersonal issues ‘among themselves’.  

Holt McCallany’s nuanced, career-best work as Fritz ensures this never falls into the kind of overbearing territory we might find in the early sections of a Dickensian novel. Often shot in imposing high and low angles, McCallany provides the aging ex-athlete with a genuinely alluring, domineering charisma. Even when he appears half the weight of his goliath-sized sons, like when he successfully convinces Kerry to join the family profession, we never doubt why his adult children would do just about anything for his near-unattainable approval.

Efron, delivering his own best ever performance, is pitch-perfect casting as eldest brother Kevin. We already know he can meet the physical requirements, but the former teen heartthrob is also a match for the dramatic demands. Over the course of a couple hours, Kevin goes through more emotions than a therapist might have to manage in a lifetime. Effron is believable when the usually reserved Kevin processes his rage in a bloody ring encounter with Ric Flair. So too, he is just as effective as dramatizing his character’s truly unimaginable, repressed turmoil. It’s no mean feat to make us feel for Kevin as if he’s a sad-eyed, abandoned puppy when he looks like a live-action He-man. 

To contrast with the more pernicious form of masculinity that dominates, Durkin goes to lengths to remind us of the more positive, fraternal bond at the heart of the story. The cast here is just as strong. Dickinson brings some much-needed energy as the easy-going, trash-talker David. Jeremy Allen White impresses as the laser-focused, then destructive, Kerry. Durkin understands the manner in which children (even grown up ones) can provide safe spaces for one another when away from a cruel, disparaging paternal figure.

That moving comradery feels genuine and as a result, it’s devastating when it begins to fracture. Lily James, perhaps unfairly sidelined in most reviews, also deserves credit as the woman who first shows Kevin what it is to be empathetic without an ulterior motive, allowing him to healthily  release what he so often has been forced to hide. She does it without a word being said.

Durkin isn’t usually a director with an eye for flair but he has some noticeable flourishes here. A sweeping montage scored by Rush’s Tom Sawyer is an economic, endearing summation of the Von Erich brothers best period both as wrestlers and content siblings. The one-take we get outside the auditorium before an event match-up is a neat window into the beer-swigging, tailgate party culture of Texas wrestling. There’s the clever, soul-crushing dissolve that briefly deludes us into thinking someone in distress is about to reach out to his brothers but in reality is desperately, hopelessly alone.    

Some narrative issues persist. As talented as the cast is, the supporting brothers could have done with just a smidge more characterization. This feels more apparent in an utterly relentless final 30 minutes. A physical showdown on the farm between two characters is maybe a bridge too far during a scene with an already heightened, extremely upsetting scenario.

By the gut-wrenching final moments, in which the knife is twisted and then some, we’ll have forgotten all about that. A brief back-and forth-between man and child reminds us this is a story of keeping on and not giving up. Durkin wants to make sure you know The Iron Claw is not about a father passing on a poisoned chalice of a dream to his sons. It’s a film about brothers.

The Iron Claw is in cinemas now

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