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The Iron Claw Review

December 22, 2023 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
The Iron Claw - Von Erichs still Image Credit: A24 Films
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The Iron Claw Review  

Directed By: Sean Durkin
Written By: Sean Durkin
Runtime: 130 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated R for language, suicide, some sexuality and drug use

Zac Efron – Kevin Von Erich
Jeremy Allen White – Kerry Von Erich
Holt McCallany – Fritz Von Erich
Maura Tierney – Dottie Von Erich
Lily James – Pam
Harris Dickinson – David Von Erich
Stanley Simons – Mike Von Erich
Michael Harney – Bill Mercer
Kevin Anton – Harley Race
Aaron Dean Eisenberg – Ric Flair
Cazzey Louis Cereghino – Bruiser Brody

Renowned studio A24 and Martha Marcy May Marlene filmmaker Sean Durkin dramatize the rise and fall of one of professional wrestling’s most famous families, the Von Erichs, in The Iron Claw. Unfortunately, the story of the Von Erichs is a harrowing one. It’s a story well-known to wrestling fans born in the ’70s and ’80s, especially those who are native Texans. Considering the nearly insurmountable tragedies the Von Erich family experienced, Durkin performs admirable work in creating a compelling, emotional, gut-wrenching drama about the life and times of the Von Erichs.

The story begins in the 1960s, as family patriarch Fritz Von Erich (McCallany) embarks on a career in professional wrestling, seeking to provide for his wife Dottie (Tierney) and growing family by becoming the top wrestling star in the territory era. Being No. 1 in this business means obtaining the Worlds Heavyweight Championship of the National Wrestling Alliance. Fast forward to 1979, Fritz’s family owns and runs the Texas-based wrestling promotion World Class Professional Wrestling (WCCW). The family’s eldest son, Kevin (Efron), has followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming one of the top wrestlers in WCCW, with his younger brother David (Dickinson) prepping to make his in-ring debut. Meanwhile, their younger sibling Kerry (Allen White) is training to compete in the 1980 Olympic Games.

Due to their father’s harsh, overbearing nature, the Von Erich brothers are eager to impress Fritz and earn his elusive approval. Fritz provokes competition among his sons by diverting their attention to professional wrestling and athletics; and over breakfast, he casually ranks the order in which he values his sons. Despite eldest brother Kevin recognizing the brewing problems with his dad, he works his way upward in the business, seeking to earn the NWA’s Worlds Heavyweight Title that his father never achieved. Kevin believes that surely, Fritz will finally love him once he succeeds in attaining that honor.

However, while the bumps and accumulative damage of professional wrestling are legitimate, the results are pre-determined. Earning the top prize in the business is primarily based on perception, fan approval, and backstage politics over legitimate hardworking merit. Additionally, while Kevin is the most gifted, seasoned, and talented member of his family inside the squared circle, his brother David eclipses Kevin with his charisma and promo skills. They are eventually joined in the business by Kerry, his Olympic dreams shattered after the United States boycotted the 1980 games due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Although earning love and approval from Fritz is difficult, the Von Erich boys are unabashed in their affection, love, and support for each other. While pursuing their careers in wrestling, their stardom grows across the country. However, while Fritz granted his sons the ability to work in the ring, he didn’t prepare his sons for the mental and physical the business takes over time. The touring schedule for wrestling is brutal, and the Von Erich boys cope with the strain through steroid use, managing the pain by popping opiates like Skittles.

Kevin later meets and falls in love with a bright, young Texan girl, Pam (James), and tells her about a family curse. Unfortunately, Kevin’s family soon experiences significant tragedy, and through belief and self-defeating prophecy, the old family curse emerges from thought into existence. The genuine root of the so-called “curse” is all too obvious.

In simplest terms, The Iron Claw is the tragic story of how toxic masculinity can poison a family. It’s also a story about a man’s brotherly bonds and the emotional toll one suffers when those precious bonds are lost. Efron, Allen White, Dickinson, and Simons excel wonderfully as the Von Erich siblings. Simons’ arc as the youngest son, Mike, is tremendously heartbreaking considering his lack of interest in wrestling, as he shows a stronger affinity for music. Mike’s parents fail to recognize his musical talents, with Fritz shoving Mike into the wrestling business, something that Mike’s more fragile body is not well-suited for.

The method Durkin utilizes to depict the brotherly love of the Von Erichs is where The Iron Claw shows its true power, along with the crushing sense of dread and despair that threatens to engulf the family. The story of the Von Erich family is not a happy one. Considering what their story entails, Durkin tremendously excels by making the family’s story compelling and digestible.

Durkin and his script’s biggest problem is that in taking many creative liberties with the timeline of major events. Durkin’s script seriously compresses and streamlines the Von Erich family’s history to create a movie-friendly narrative. The plot omits significant relatives, including another tragic member of the family, Chris Von Erich. It’s not unusual for stories based on actual people and historical events to take such creative liberties. Durkin’s reasoning for omitting Chris Von Erich is understandable from both narrative and audience perspectives. That said, removing Chris’ existence from the story feels especially sad.

Another example of how the film takes extreme liberties with wrestling history is how the narrative stages two specific major events for Kerry Von Erich. The Iron Claw depicts the epic contest between Kerry Von Erich and Ric Flair at the 1st Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions as happening the night before Kerry’s devastating motorcycle accident. In real life, the accident happened years after the iconic wrestling event at Texas Stadium. As a movie, the experience is tumultuous, emotional, and suspenseful. However, with an intimate knowledge of wrestling history comes a piercing ambivalence to glaring historical timeline alterations such as this.

Durkin presents the in-ring content wonderfully and with a strong sense of authenticity, but there are a few exceptions. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély provides a tight and up-close view of the Von Erichs’ in-ring athletic prowess. The visual presentation displays an immersive sense of physicality. However, there is one significant instance where it’s implied that Kevin essentially goes off-script and takes physical liberties with one of the top stars in the wrestling business [AN: In professional wrestling, the industry term for occurrences such as this is called “shooting.”] All experienced wrestling fans will know the act of legitimately “fighting” or hurting an opponent inside the wrestling ring is a major taboo.

When Kevin returns to the locker room, things are deathly quiet. It’s clear this was a major screw-up by Kevin, but a weirdly comedic moment cuts the tension. Yes, the moment is funny, but from an authenticity perspective, the dichotomy of what Durkin attempts to create with this sequence doesn’t work very well. While Zac Efron and his costars trained tremendously hard to make their in-ring work look smooth as butter, there’s no getting around their billed heights. Shortly after being billed as 6’3″, Efron’s Kevin is seen next to a much taller Harley Race, billed at a shorter 6’1″. Yet Harley Race performer Kevin Anton appears visibly taller than Kevin. That’s more of a minor nitpick, but it is still a noticeable detail that is hard to ignore. In his limited screen time, Anton amazingly nails every aspect of portraying Harley Race, so much so that it’s almost eerie. Aaron Dean Eisenberg, who appears as Ric Flair, does not quite pull it off as wrestling’s dirtiest player in the game but puts in a spirited effort.

In a story that revolves around the hyper-masculine world of pro wrestling, Maura Tierney and Lily James are the thankless, unsung heroes of The Iron Claw. Dottie is one character who would have benefitted from additional scenes, but Tierney is such a tremendous performer that she conveys a great deal despite her screen time. Tierney has a very emotional scene with James as Pam, where the family’s trauma takes a personal toll on Dottie.

Efron has come a long way as an actor, and he demonstrates significant growth in his performance as Kevin. In watching the film, it’s abundantly clear why Durkin cast Efron as Kevin and wrote the story around Kevin’s journey. While wrestling fans might have initial misgivings regarding the casting, when Allen White might have appeared as a more inspired choice to portray Kevin, Efron hits it out of the park with his empathetic, heartbreaking performance as a man who loves his brothers.

Despite the problems with the streamlining of specific events, The Iron Claw is an exceptional dramatic tale. Although the narrative takes many shortcuts to make it more acceptable for a mainstream audience, Durkin delivers the goods by depicting one of wrestling’s most famous families torn apart by tragedy that could have easily been avoided.

A24’s The Iron Claw opens in theaters with a wide release on Friday, December 22.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
The Iron Claw is not a simple story to digest. Even with the significant omissions, filmmaker Sean Durkin pulls off a very unenviable task depicting the harsh, gritty tale about the tragic rise and fall of the Von Erichs. Efron leads the way with a wonderfully strong performance as eldest brother Kevin. Despite changes, the film's message is a relevant, important one -- that it's okay for men to cry.