The Iron Claw

Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany, Netflix's 'Mindhunter') was a pro wrestler in the 1960’s who retired as a wrestling promoter in Texas.  But his larger late life calling was in coaching his four surviving sons, Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson, "Beach Rats," "Scrapper"), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White, TV's 'The Bear') and Mike (Stanley Simons).   Determined to bring a belt into the family, Fritz kept a grip on his sons like he did his opponents using his old wrestling move, “The Iron Claw.”

Laura's Review: B+

As a young boy in England, writer/director Sean Durkin ("Martha Marcy May Marlene," "The Nest") was fascinated by American.  For his third film, Durkin tackles the complex family dynamics of the Von Erichs (the stage name assumed by the Adkisson family) and the competitive bond among its brothers at a time when wrestling was beginning to be viewed more as entertainment than sport, except by the Von Erichs. 

Those who still think of Zac Efron as the pretty boy of Disney’s “High School Musical” movies are in for a shock as the actor, now in his mid-thirties, has physically transformed himself into an astonishing specimen of beefed up musculature.  And while Efron’s been proving he can act, demonstrating his range by taking on such roles as Ted Bundy, his Kevin Von Erich is his best performance to date, a man so intent on pleasing his father he takes one humiliation after the next as the younger Von Erichs leapfrog over him and yet quietly becomes the true family man his dad never was.  Efron’s Kevin is the heart of the film and the only Von Erich to survive Fritz.  (While the eldest Von Erich brother, Jack, died at six from drowning, there was also a sixth brother, Chris, the family’s third suicide that this film doesn’t mention.)

After a flashback exhibition of ‘the iron claw’ in the ring, Fritz grasping his opponent’s head like a mechanical bird of prey then driving home with his straight-backed wife and two tow-headed sons in the back seat, we jump ahead in time to find the adult Kevin imploring mom Doris (a dour Maura Tierney) to intervene with dad, who, he tells her, is being too tough on Mike (she refuses).   Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély ("Son of Saul") recalls another sport in the opening flashback, the boxing of “Raging Bull,” with his dreamy black and white imagery, before segueing into color and more realistic displays of ring choreography with the Von Erich brothers.

After becoming the Texas heavyweight champion, Kevin draws a lot of local female attention, but none so determined as Pam (Lily James) who is quickly assimilated into the family, a comrade-in-arms to the brothers.  But when dad arranges a challenge fight for Kevin with national champ Harley Race (Kevin Anton), the competition proves too brutal.  Kevin wins the fight by Race’s disqualification, but never regains dad’s full consideration (Fritz quite shockingly doesn’t hesitate to voice his favoritism, putting his children in competition with one another).

The family’s next blow arrives when President Carter declares that the U.S. will not participate in the Russian held Olympics, sending Kerry home where dad will ask him to join the family team, he, Kevin and David becoming NWA world champs in six man tag team wrestling, but when it comes time to choose the next son to go for the solo title, Fritz chooses David.

Durkin ably balances beautifully choreographed wrestling bouts (we feel the impact when a body hits the floor) with family drama.  When Doris forbids Mike from performing a paid college gig with his band, his true passion, the brothers and Pam sneak him out of the house.  Kevin’s joyous wedding celebration foretells the next tragedy in a film whose alternate title could have been “Four Funerals and a Wedding.”  Each of the actors playing a Von Erich son gets his own chapter, but it is Kevin, finally defiant amidst even more revelations of his father’s unjust treatment, who prevails, Durkin delivering hope at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

This is a well made family sports drama that boasts a solid ensemble.  While Efron shoulders the emotional through line, everyone else adds individual flavor, Dickinson publicly bolder but supportive of older brother, Allen White more competitive yet less able to cope with the stress, Simons the musical outlier who nonetheless goes along.  McCallany’s Fritz is like a freight train, all motivational rhetoric with no underlying compassion, supported by Tierney’s religious ‘father knows best’ housewife.  James is a breath of fresh air amidst the testosterone, the first to recognize Fritz’s toxic effect.

“The Iron Claw” is a premiere example of the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.  You don’t have to care anything about wrestling to be absorbed by Durkin’s drama.

Robin's Review: B

A24 opens "The Iron Claw" in theaters nationwide on 12/22/23.