“Ever since I was a child, people said my family was cursed.”
It remains unclear to me why Sean Durkin remains less celebrated than he should be in the world of indie filmmaking. His debut feature, 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, remains one of the most unnerving tales about the world of cults that’s ever been made. Even if The Nest, Durkin’s 2020 follow-up didn’t connect the way that it should have, those who did embrace it found themselves wowed by a story that showed the dangers of reaching for an existence that was never meant to be a reality. Now, the filmmaker has returned with The Iron Claw, an offering that offers up a series of firsts for Durkin in terms of genre, budget, and star power. Despite the slow trickle of acclaim that has come his way, Durkin does seem to be moving up the industry ladder. It’s a well-earned climb, and judging by The Iron Claw, it looks to take him higher.
Based on the true story, The Iron Claw takes place in the late 70s/early 80s and follows the Von Erik family, who made a name for themselves in the world of wrestling. Following patriarch Fritz’s (Holt McCallany) end to a once-promising career, his three sons Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), and Kerry (Jeremy Allen-White) each seem poised to carry on where he left off as mother Doris (Maura Tierney) and youngest brother Mike (Stanley Simons) watch from the side. However, Kevin’s budding relationship with Pam (Lily James) and a string of personal tragedies look to end everything the family has fought to build.
The Iron Claw is being sold as a story about wrestling, which in many respects is very true. There are some scenes and sequences that show how the family made their name in the sport and how they all but became a dynasty of wrestlers. These are well-shot, effective moments in The Iron Claw which not only shows Durkin’s versatility as a director but also his knack for allowing him and his camera to be consumed by the world he’s trying to capture. Whenever he’s not in the ring, Durkin ensures that The Iron Claw never loses its wrestling movie credibility by looking at the mentality required to exist in such a world. In Kevin, Kerry, and David we see the different sides of the wrestler’s mind, and what the sport means to each of them. While one wants to please his father, another aims to make a name for himself, while the other sees it as a natural duty that he must fulfill, regardless of what it costs. If each brother borders on obsession, their father is flat out held captive by it, determined that his sons carry him to the glory he believes was always meant to be his.
It’s when Durkin focuses on the side of life outside of the ring that The Iron Claw feels like a Sean Durkin film. The film is at its best when it operates as a story about the familial bond, what it means to each member of the Von Erik family, and the person each one becomes when another tragedy befalls them. Fueled by their part of the legacy they’re leaving behind, each brother is given his own moment of struggling to be seen as a viable member of the family while also trying to exist as the person he naturally is. At each brother’s heels is Fritz, who remains steadfast in his praise of whichever son is currently proving himself to be the best. It’s hard not to feel the pain in each brother’s heart as Fritz pushes him aside to dote on another, especially when the family’s supposed curse starts to take effect. Once the dust settles and the curse has wreaked havoc on the Von Erik’s by claiming one life after another, the real tragedy that emerges is not what has been lost, but rather what was missed, and what probably never had a chance to be.
While he’s top-billed, I can’t say that Efron’s work in The Iron Claw is remarkably good, but he is as good as he’s ever been. The film borders on being an ensemble piece, but Kevin is definitely the soul of the film and Efron takes great care to make sure the audience clocks the growing anguish that will never leave his character’s soul. As his brothers, Simon is heartbreaking, Allen-White makes good use of his Bear hiatus, and Dickinson continues his rise as an actor whose work is to be anticipated. James and Tierney give what could have otherwise been simple stock characters real life, while longtime character actor McCallany turns in what might be his finest hour on film.
As I said before, The Iron Claw functions as a Durkin film thanks to both the director’s exploration into a world he’s not yet ventured into and his attraction to the raw humanity at the root of it. If there’s one moment that all but cinches The Iron Claw‘s heart, it’s the film’s final scene in which a broken Kevin sits in a grassy yard all alone. It’s a striking scene in which the once-promising athlete finds himself overcome with emotion as he watches his young sons playing in the yard. Seeing his children be allowed to freely be children, it finally sinks in how much he gave to his family, and how much they all gave to an entity that destroyed them in ways none of them could have ever imagined. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better way to end the story, or a better testament to a filmmaker whose work only keeps getting richer.