THE IRON CLAW Retells One of Wrestling’s Darkest Tragedies

Obsession, family and violence collide in this dark sports biopic

Professional wrestling has its fair share of tragedy. Some of it is manufactured, parts of the melodramatic narrative that happens within the squared circle that essentially stretches across the past century and beyond. But a lot of it is the real stuff, actual horrific occurrences that disrupt the fantasy of the melodrama to bring it down to crashing reality. There are enough of these stories that Vice has centered a whole television series on them. And among the most heartbreaking is the story of how the Von Erichs, the first family of Texas wrestling, quickly unraveled after a series of hardships. Centered around four wrestling brothers, three of the quartet met untimely ends, all when they are set to make their ascension in the brightest spotlight of the sport. Von Erich’s have come to be a byline for the saddest, most heartbreaking corner of the world of professional wrestling, which has its fair share of heartbreak to go around.

The Iron Claw, the new film from writer-director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), explores the crannies of this grappling tragedy, with the oversight of the surviving Von Erich, Kevin. By tapping into a story that is well known by wrestling aficionados, and perhaps few outside that circle, Durkin is able to utilize the trappings of a traditional sports biopic to present a story of family, obsession and the inescapable need for acceptance and glory. The film is a series of traps, setting you up for a traditional story of ascension and eventual recognition, only to continually pull the rug out from under you as the next wrecking ball crushes through the family. It is a balancing of tones that Durkin has generally been masterful of in his interesting, if selective, filmography, and with the assistance of grounded and heartfelt performances it pulls it off here. But if you know where the story is going, if you’re aware of the specific pains this family went through, the eventual destination feels like a slow unfurling, a sense of dread that will be missed by those unfamiliar with the Von Erich curse.

That curse is actually mentioned early in the film. Kevin, played in the film by Zac Efron in a performance equal parts tender and grimacing, tells his new girlfriend Pam (Lily James) that people say his family is cursed, partially because his father Fritz took his wife’s maiden name for his ring persona. He mentions that there was another brother who died as a young child, but reflexively argues he doesn’t think about him much. You can tell in his eyes he’s lying, or at the very least is trying to convince himself that’s the truth.

At our point of entry into the story, Kevin is the only one of the brothers who is actually wrestling. A bulking physical presence, he moves with fluidity and power in the ring, but struggles when it comes to the more charismatic, personable parts of the business. He’s all body and id, a manifestation of pure physical ability, while his younger brother David (Harris Dickinson) is more comfortable on the microphone, providing the much needed balance of humanity to the pure violence. They are eventually joined by Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), who turns to wrestling after the 1980 American boycott of the Olympics sidetracks his Olympian dreams. Together they strive towards building a dynasty, gaining in-roads for their region on the national stage.

Of course none of this is really their dream; it’s their father’s. Fritz Von Erich, played with menace by Holt McCallany, infects his sons with the desire to create a wrestling legacy. As Kevin puts it in his film, his mother gave them religion and his father gave them wrestling. He constantly pits them against each; at one point Fritz ranks how much he loves his sons, but that his affection is always open to be swayed. The main way to win his love? Success in the ring, meaning that all of the Von Erichs, including Kevin from whom the film’s point of view rests, place their entire self worth upon their ability to succeed as wrestlers.

But of course wrestling is part athletic ability and a lot of politics. And while Fritz can be aggressive in his political movements, he is also pushing a boulder uphill against a system that actively rejects him. Thus his son’s affections, at least for their father, is pit against an impossible task. The end result? Breaking them down one-by-one, roped into his own quest for legacy. The youngest brother, Michael, has his own passion for music, but that falls on deaf ears when he is called upon to fulfill his destiny as a Von Erich.

Thus the whole film becomes a balancing act of loving family, and funneling that love through the fickle world of professional wrestling which is ultimately a heartless trap. Thus the stakes for Kevin in general is to find some peace, to take care of his family, and to be the heir to his father’s careful arranged legacy. But that burden is enough to crush anyone; the tension lies in if he will be able to escape. But even if he does, what will be the cost?

This all plays into Durkin’s favorite themes of unsustainable power structures, and the effects they have on the psychosis of the individuals. By marrying those themes with the familiar rise-and-fall rhythms of a sports biopic, it creates a crushingly dark portrait of how family and addiction can intermingle to mangle those who are trapped within it. The story of the Von Erich curse then is not one of a metaphysical dark destiny that is inescapable. As Pam tells Kevin, she doesn’t believe in curses or luck. But the journey for him to come to that conclusion on his own will take him through hell and back, and will cost his family far more than can be imagined. For all these reasons, the Iron Claw of the title refers to not just the brothers’ father’s crushing finishing maneuver, but the very gravity of destructive cycles that grips them all. The drama of if any of them will escape it underlines the dread, and ultimate tragedy, of the film.

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