The Iron Claw (2023, dir. Sean Durkin)

by | Feb 8, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 132 mins

UK Distributor: Lionsgate

UK Release Date: 9 February 2024

WHO’S IN THE IRON CLAW?

Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Stanley Simons, Holt McCallany, Lily James, Michael J. Harney, Maxwell Jacob Friedman, Brady Pierce, Aaron Dean Eisenberg, Kevin Anton, Cazzey Louis Cereghino, Chavo Guerrero Jr., Ryan Nemeth, Scott Innes

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Sean Durkin (director, writer, producer), Juliette Howell, Angus Lamont, Tessa Ross and Derrin Schlesinger (producers), Richard Reed Parry (composer), Mátyás Erdély (cinematographer), Matthew Hannam (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A family of professional wrestlers sees its meteoritic success undone by tragedy…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE IRON CLAW?

There certainly hasn’t been a shortage of wrestlers in movies, from Dwayne Johnson to John Cena and beyond, but films about wrestlers are, quite surprisingly, still fairly uncommon in mainstream cinema. Sure, there’s movies like Fighting with My Family, Nacho Libre and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler which have all put a wrestler of some kind at the centre of their story, but there’s less of them than you might think, as it seems that most audiences consider the dramatics outside the ring to be less entertaining than what goes on inside of it.

That certainly isn’t the case with The Iron Claw, an impressively emotional family drama that is defined solely by what happens far from the ring itself, and manages to completely grip on to you tight like the finishing move of the title.

Written and directed by Sean Durkin, The Iron Claw is a semi-fictionalised tale of the Von Erichs, a notorious family of professional wrestlers who, throughout the early 1980s, rose to prominence within the National Wrestling Alliance. The core athletes consist of brothers Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson) and later their more musically-gifted brother Mike (Stanley Simons), all of whom are put under intense pressure by their domineering ex-wrestler father Fritz (Holt McCallany), to where he openly ranks favourability of his own sons by how much they please him with their actions in the ring, while their mother Doris (Maura Tierney) dutifully stands by her man. However, the family is weary of a supposed curse that has already claimed the life of one of the brothers, and very soon it rears its ugly head onto the remaining siblings in utterly tragic fashion.

Even if you know going in how the real story of the Von Erich family ultimately ends, which Durkin’s film sticks fairly close to barring the absence of one or two real-life characters (apparently nixed because, according to the filmmaker, it would have been one too many tragedies for this on-screen clan), The Iron Claw still manages to be an absolute gut-punch of emotion that you won’t see coming. The film does a very good job of making you really like these brothers, including their dynamic with each other that is certainly playful and at times taunting, as brothers can be with other brothers – as a brother myself, I know this all too well – but they are still very loving and supportive of one another and their own ambitions.

For instance, at one point underage Mike gets a gig performing with his band at a college party, which his far less sympathetic parents forbid him to go to. So, what do his older brothers do? They sneak him out at night and cheer him on as he performs to drunk college students, of course. It’s acts of kindness like these that make you root for characters like the Von Erich brothers, and in Durkin’s script they are written so naturally that you wouldn’t mind if you spent the entire movie just watching them bounce off one another (figuratively and, once performing in the ring together, quite literally).

Unfortunately, anyone who knows the Von Erich story through and through will know that spending the entire movie with all these brothers just isn’t going to be a possibility. When that family curse hits, it hits hard, and it’s even more painful after spending so much time really getting to know these characters and seeing how well they interact with each other. You absolutely feel the stress and frustration that they are always under, through filmmaking that creates a somewhat eerie atmosphere that rejects the pageantry and showmanship of the wrestling ring itself for something much more psychologically taxing. Keep an eye out for one very well-edited sequence that’s just the faces of these brothers layered on top of one another, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t a perfect visual encapsulation of their shared torment.

Durkin’s script also lets the viewer understand exactly how and why they are so pressured, much of it having to do with their tyrannical stage parent of a father (whom, incidentally, Holt McCallany is excellent as) who has effectively denied each and every one of his sons the proper love and support that a father should give his children, unless they can live up to his astronomical expectations. As a result of their rather cold treatment by both their parents, the brothers noticeably lack a lot of social cues, particularly Zac Efron’s Kevin who, whilst meeting his future wife Pam (Lily James, who is very good in an otherwise underutilised role), has to be prompted by her about how to actually talk to her whilst asking her out on a date. Small but significant moments like that put their insecurities on full display, and give you a truly upsetting look into their fractured souls, long before anything tragic actually unfolds.

When it eventually does, Durkin is careful to never let the tragedy of this family be exploited for cheap sentiment, instead choosing to focus on the emotional aftermath that ultimately drives some of the film’s most upsetting scenes. Key to this is Zac Efron, who here gives a performance that encompasses so much regret and trauma that even his impossibly muscular body is riddled with emotional vulnerability. It’s a serious shame that Efron, and indeed The Iron Claw as a whole, has been largely overlooked this awards season, because it’s the kind of lead performance that you could easily see dominating in any other given year, especially during the film’s closing moments which are among the very best acting that he, and indeed most other acting contenders this year, has given.

It’s a very well-made, well-written and especially well-acted film that near-perfectly balances the tragedy of this wrestling dynasty with some hard-hitting themes of family and the toxic effects of overt masculinity. In terms of wrestling movies, it’s absolutely up there with the very best, and as for that very small circle of films about wrestlers, it might have just found itself the equivalent of Raging Bull – with more flamboyant costumes and long haircuts, of course.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Iron Claw is an excellent look at the deeply tragic circumstances of the Von Erich wrestling family, whom writer-director Sean Durkin spends plenty of endearing time with before delivering gut-punch after gut-punch of upsetting scenes that are brilliantly conveyed, especially through Zac Efron’s criminally overlooked lead performance.

Five out of five stars

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