THE IRON CLAW reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Sean Durkin
Stars: Zac Efron, Holt McCallanay, Harris Dickinson, Jeremy Allen White, Lily James, Maura Tierney, Stanley Simons, Chavo Guerrero jr, Kevin Anton, Michael Harney, Aaron Dean Eisenberg.
A staple of the sport of wrestling in the 1980s, the Von Erich dynasty was one of the most famous families in the competitive world of professional wrestling, but they were also dogged by tragedy, supposedly the result of a “family curse”. Writer/director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene, etc) was a fan of wrestling while growing up, and this biopic about the Texan family is something of a passion project for him. He spent seven years researching the family and their chequered history, and this has shaped this intriguing story of corrosive patriarchy, loss and heartbreak.
The Von Erich family was headed by the domineering Fritz (Holt McCallany, from Mindhunter, etc) who was a former wrestler himself in the 60s, but he never achieved the title he desperately desired. Instead, he drove his four sons to achieve what he failed to do, pushing them at all times to become the strongest and the best, hoping to turn them into champions. The four brothers were incredibly close and supportive of one another, and the strong bond between them gives the story its emotional resonance.
Kevin (a seriously buff and bulked up Zac Efron in one of the standout performances of his career) was on the fast track to success in the wrestling ring and his path to the top was seemingly preordained. However, he lacked the ability to trash talk his opponents, which was when younger brother David (Harris Dickinson, from The Triangle Of Sadness, etc) stepped up and Fritz gave him his opportunity to shine in the ring. He eventually eclipsed Kevin’s success and was given a shot at a world title in Japan. Kerry (Jeremy Allen White, the Emmy nominated star of tv series The Bear, etc) was a champion athlete with a shot at Olympic glory. But after the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games he found himself adrift and returned to the family compound. Fritz encouraged him to take up wrestling and join his two brothers and form a tag team. They dominated and were crowd favourites on the local circuit.
Following the untimely death of David due to complications from a ruptured intestine, their youngest and more sensitive brother Mike (relative newcomer Stanley Simons, from Angelfish, etc), who was more interested in his music, was pressured by Fritz to take part in the family business. And their deeply religious mother Doris (Maura Tierney, from tv series ER, etc) was stoic and silent as she watched Fritz drive the boys, and while she was complicit in his desire to succeed she endured plenty of heartbreak and loss along the way.
The Iron Claw, which takes its title from Fritz’s signature move in the ring, is not an easy film to watch with its depiction of toxic masculinity and the tragedies that befell the family. It’s almost suffocating in its feel-bad vibes.
The sport of wrestling may be fake, and the bouts carefully stage-managed, but it is clear that many wrestlers suffered real injuries caused by the falls and antics in the ring. The sport itself takes an enormous physical and mental toll on the participants. Durkins’ direction, particularly of the rousing fight scenes, is muscular and many of these scenes are quite brutal and punishing. The fight scenes have been carefully choreographed with input from professional wrestler Chava Guerrero. Durkin deftly balances the brutality of those scenes in the ring with the warmer and more tender scenes that illustrate the strong bond between the brothers at home.
Durkin and his production team have created an authentic 80s vibe for the film, through costumes and soundtrack choices (Tom Petty, Blue Oyster Cult, Rush, etc), and they also recreate the brutal atmosphere of the world of wrestling. Matyas Erdely’s cinematography brings the action in the ring to life, but his lensing also suffuses those scenes set on the Von Erich ranch with golden hues and warmer tones. James Price’s production design is superb, recreating the interiors for both the Von Erich house and the Sportatorium where most of the wrestling matches were played out.
Since appearing in the High School Musical films, Efron has been trying to shake off his image as a teen pinup idol by trying to choose edgier and more gritty roles. Here he finds his most physical and demanding role as Kevin and he has undergone a remarkable physical transformation; it is obvious that he is committed to the role and has been working out to develop the muscles and ripped abs on display, with his imposing physique more reminiscent of Schwarzenegger in his prime. He also manages to find the emotional depth and vulnerability for Kevin, especially when he meets Pam (Lily James), who becomes his wife.
McCallany has played supporting roles in many films over the years, but here he is given the best role of his career as the driven, hard as nails and seemingly uncaring Fritz with his win at all costs mentality, and he comes across as an unsympathetic character. Dickinson brings a boyish charm to his role as David and his quieter nature presents a contrast to Efron’s character. White has a strong physical presence and delivers a solid performance as Kerry. Simons lends his character an air of innocence and vulnerability. James brings warmth and strength to her performance as the strong-willed Pam.
The Iron Claw is a great companion piece for Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler, which starred Mickey Rourke as an aging wrestler desperately trying to hold on to his glory days. Durkin’s film, which is based on a true story, is a profoundly moving and dark edged family drama underpinned by a real sense of loss and melancholy.