‘The Iron Claw’ review: Sad Von Erichs saga comes to life

Film after film, director Sean Durkin explores the dynamics of dysfunctional families, particularly ones with imposing, controlling or otherwise distrustful father figures. In his 2011 feature debut, “Martha Marcy Mae Marlene,” the family was a cult, with John Hawkes playing a Charles Manson-like leader. In Durkin’s semi-autobiographical “The Nest” (2020), Jude Law portrays a pathologically-lying cad whose compulsion for keeping up appearances almost destroys his family.

The patriarch in Durkin’s latest film, “The Iron Claw,” is also obsessed with maintaining an image of his family, one of powerful masculinity. But this is a true story — the tale of the Von Erich clan, a wrestling dynasty who ruled rings in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s an almost unbelievably devastating fable of young men crushed under the expectations of their demanding father, Fritz (Holt McCallany), who served as the coach, mentor, employer and overseer of a Texas wrestling promotion that churned through his brood of boys.

Durkin has wanted to make a movie about the Von Erichs for as long as he has wanted to make films, since he was a kid obsessed with wrestling. He applies his signature sensibility to this epic melodrama, which has been condensed in some parts to manage the size and scope of this sprawling American tragedy, but is no less affecting.

Zac Efron stars as Kevin Von Erich, a brilliant bit of casting, and this is Efron’s best screen performance yet. He conveys an inherent sweetness, a sense of guilelessness and innocence that serves his portrayal as the protective oldest brother, and provides a contrast to his bulked-up physique. His tender, good-humored nature also stands in opposition to Fritz’s tough expectations, demanding his sons always wear a stoic mask of machismo.

From left, Zac Efron, Holt McCallany, Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson in the movie “The Iron Claw.”

(Eric Chakeen / A24)

Durkin introduces the thematic backbone of “The Iron Claw” as we enter the Von Erich home, the brothers squabbling over a big breakfast as Fritz ranks his favorite sons. The camera cuts quickly from a framed family photo, to a display of guns, to religious iconography, to sports trophies, telling us everything we need to know about this American fable of violence and spirituality rendered with a Shakespearean level of pathos.

Fritz wants to protect and provide for his boys with sports; their mother Doris (Maura Tierney) puts her faith in Jesus to take care of her sons. Neither parent takes it upon themselves, but the brothers look after each other, especially Kevin, who strives to excel at wrestling for his father, but whose small rebellions against Fritz pave his path to survival.

“The Iron Claw” starts off as a rollicking ’80s sports romp. Kevin is never happier than when he’s with his siblings: personable David (Harris Dickinson), Mike (Stanley Simons), a lanky high school rocker who doesn’t care much for sports, and Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), a track superstar who returns home from an Olympic training camp after the United States withdraws from the 1980 Games. A family game of tag football and a barbecue is all Kevin needs to be content, but he is tasked with maintaining the wrestling legacy started by his father, who passed down his signature move, a forehead grab called the Iron Claw.

Durkin renders 1980s Texas with fine-tuned detail, and there is plenty of fun with the carefully re-created matches at the Sportatorium, the smack-talking rivalries, the swaggering Von Erich intros set to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” When Kevin, David and Kerry wrestle as a tag team, there is a beauty in the dance of their bodies soaring from the top rope, moving in concert with each other, their instincts honed from a lifetime of play, competition and training.

The wrestling here is brutal ballet, choreographed by former professional wrestler Chavo Guerrero. Durkin shows us both the false construction of the sport and the very real destruction of bodies both inside and outside the ring. He manages to portray wrestling with a lyrical poeticism, while also maintaining the over-the-top theatricality that makes it so entertaining (Aaron Dean Eisenberg is a standout as bombastic canvas opponent Ric Flair) and inherently dangerous.

Efron embodies all of these contradictions in his performance as Kevin, a naïf who becomes too familiar with life’s cruelties. He’s a wounded warrior holding onto his identity with everything he can, who can only express his futile frustrations using his impossibly sculpted body and the tools he was taught. But it’s not enough to overcome catastrophes that shouldn’t be spelled out for those who don’t see them telegraphed.

Ultimately, “The Iron Claw” is a ghost story, a tale of a family haunted by those they’ve lost and their own culpability. It is so much more than just melodrama — it is myth-making on a grand yet intimate scale, a film that attempts to express a small sliver of the Von Erich legend, beautifully doing justice to Kevin’s personal journey.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘The Iron Claw’

Rating: R, for for language, suicide, some sexuality and drug use

Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes

Playing: In wide release Dec. 22

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *