THE IRON CLAW Wrestles With the Joy and Burden of Family

Going into Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw, I didn’t really know what to expect. The story of the Von Erich family and the crushing highs and staggering lows they experienced is something of which I was completely unaware. A friend of mine with deep knowledge of wrestling history told me not to read up on them before seeing the movie, so I didn’t. That preserved a level of shock value, but the best thing it did was leave me open. Even as the film moves through its sports drama and biopic paces, it keeps the audience locked into the perspective of second-eldest son, Kevin (Zac Efron). Doing so gives The Iron Claw a layer of depth that proves to be crushing by the end. 

Efron, and his hulked out frame, is up to the challenge. I’ve always enjoyed him as an actor, more for his comedic chops than anything, but he is great. In a film overflowing with excellent performances (what else is new for a Sean Durkin film?), Efron is the sun everyone else revolves around. The first time Kevin appears onscreen, waking up to start another day of training, you can practically feel the pain coming off this man in waves. That sense only grows as Kevin navigates the ups and downs of his career, love life, and home life.

Durkin’s screenplay crafts scenes that allow the cast to hit multiple notes within any given moment. Obviously, that’s just good writing and acting. The Iron Claw does the thing of being so good at what it’s doing that it makes it look easy. 

As presented in the film, everything that befalls the Von Erich family stems from one event: Fritz Von Erich’s failure to become the wrestling champion he wanted so badly. Unable to fulfill his own dream, Fritz did everything he could to achieve his dream through his sons. That opens up one of the most resonant themes of the film, which is exploration of the roles we choose for ourselves and what happens when we do or don’t live up to them. Nearly every character in the film is helping to facilitate Fritz’s goals. Holt McCallany plays Fritz as a stern father who loves his kids, but maybe not as much as he loves their potential. 

Throughout the film the Von Erich boys find happiness on their own, only to have it snuffed out under Fritz’s watch. Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) is an Olympic-caliber discus thrower who got into the family business after the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Younger brother Mike (Stanley Simons) was a musician at heart. Both, along with brother David (Harris Dickinson) go on to have the wrestling success that had once seemed a formality for Kevin. Through it all, the thing that anchors the boys is their unwavering love for each other. Through disappointment and struggle, as long as the boys have each other to lean on they’ll be fine. In the ring or sneaking out of their parents’ house to go to, their bond is unbreakable.     

Rounding out the ensemble are Maura Tierney as Doris, the family matriarch, and Lily James as Kevin’s wife Pam. They create an interesting dynamic despite not sharing many scenes together. Doris is yet another person caught in Fritz’s ambitions, and Pam represents a form of escape. The characters can’t help but feel like sacrifices to the biopic formula, women there to support the men in their lives. But there are a couple moments where Tierney and James transcend. They get arguably the film’s best scene, a quiet moment before a funeral. It’s a moment emphasizing Doris’ past, Pam’s future, and their shared present.

It all comes back to Kevin, who spent his whole life trying to fill the roles of others. The first born Von Erich son died as a young child, leaving Kevin to take on the oldest son mantle. Then he tried to be what his father wanted, only to take a seat as his brothers surpassed his wrestling success. In a scene near the end, Kevin watches his sons play football in their yard. It’s an idyllic image fraught with so much happiness and anguish that reduces Kevin to tears. Thinking of the ensuing conversation he has with his sons still makes my eyes well up weeks after seeing the film.

It bears mentioning that there is a sixth brother Durkin has chosen to omit. This may raise a stink for those who demand fidelity in their films, but since I didn’t know the family story going in, it had no impact on me. I learned about this after the fact, but I can’t say it changed my thoughts on the film. What Durkin and his cast, Efron in particular, have crafted is tremendous.

The Iron Claw opens in theaters December 22nd.

Previous post Discovering the Secret, Stylish World of EILEEN
Next post STAND BY ME 4K Steelbook Review