The string of tragedies in the Von Erich wrestling family has become so topical in the circle of the sport that it effectively eclipsed all the accomplishments and individual stories of Kevin, Kerry, David, and the rest of the inseparable brothers. This Kennedy-esque sports dynasty was always going to be a challenge to commit to film, and was so rife with calamity that writer/director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) unfortunately found himself having to make the difficult choice to omit the story of brother Chris Von Erich, who committed suicide at age 21.
His absence makes Durkin’s The Iron Claw inevitably feel partially incomplete. There’s reason to believe that a miniseries would’ve done this story truer justice than any film less than three hours could’ve. If Durkin’s film and Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon swapped runtimes, I think both films would’ve benefitted significantly.
No less, Durkin delivers a commendable drama rife with human interest and standout performances. At the center of the story is Zac Efron’s Kevin Von Erich, the kind-hearted leader of his inseparable brothers, who you get the feeling would be more than happy just knocking back beers with his siblings as opposed to training tirelessly for the National Wrestling Association Championship Belt. His father, Fritz (Holt McCallany), is a man to be feared in the lives of his boys. A former professional wrestler himself, Fritz basically pits his boys against one another in hopes that one of them will be good enough to hoist the belt he never could. The boys’ mother, Doris (Maura Tierney), is mostly in the background, until her sadness starts to seep into the foreground.
Alongside Kevin is David (Harris Dickinson), the most gifted wrestler, who has exceeded Kevin’s enviable skills; Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), who struggles with substance abuse; and Mike (Stanley Simons), who would rather be practicing chords on his guitar than serving thanklessly as the Ringo of his family’s wrestling dynasty. When David is pegged by dad to be the one to travel to Japan to compete for the championship belt, the other brothers are left to push themselves harder. However, everyone’s world is rocked when David dies unexpectedly overseas. There might be something to this “Von Erich curse” Kevin tells his girlfriend, and later wife, Pam (Lily James) about.
The Iron Claw is at foremost a period piece, and it revels in its 80s schlock, from the cheesy outfits (wrestling or casual attire) and braggadocios wrestling feuds, most notably the family’s with legend Ric Flair (played valiantly both in the ring and out of it by Aaron Dean Eisenberg). Its strongest attribute is its music, which captures the era beautifully with the sweet sounds of Tom Petty and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” which would become the Von Erich boys’ theme song. During the film’s most-exquisite montage, the famous Rush song is played in its entirety.
Because of the ample ground to cover — from the Von Erichs ascension in the wrestling world to each individual tragedy the family experienced — the events in Durkin’s script tend to outpace the opportunities for character development. Sporadic moments between the brothers clue us into their tightness (Kerry congratulating David when dad taps him to compete for the belt; Kevin having a fateful conversation with Kerry early into the third act), but those moments are fleeting in favor of plot progression. We end up knowing the brothers are close because they ultimately spend so much time in/around the ring together.
The depth of outstanding performances in The Iron Claw renders it successful on its human levels because the cast soars so high. With a newly chiseled jaw and a frighteningly bulked frame, Zac Efron is almost unrecognizable from his days as a teen idol, serving as the emotional glue for the story. The final scene involving Efron’s Kevin mourning his many unfathomable losses hits as hard as any gut-punch in any movie this year, and he makes it work with tangible pathos. Jeremy Allen White is, again, a firecracker, much like he was in Shameless, and how his emotional state as a performer can segue from cocky to powerless at the drop of the hat makes you wish his arch was afforded more attention. Then there’s Holt McCallany, who instills fear with his utter lack of empathy to his boys. He reminded me of an infinitely more toxic and dumber version of Deion Sanders, who, despite cruelly ranking his sons like Fritz does in this movie, at least works to build them up week-to-week.
The wrestling scenes are choreographed with believability in a performing art sense, and with clarity, thanks to the visual language Durkin adopts with a seemingly equal amount of close-ups and long-shots. The Iron Claw reminds me of a lot of the kind of documentaries that tell such interesting stories that you sometimes feel like you came away watching a great film, when in reality, the narrative itself had you invested from the jump. I left the theater with a greater feeling of wanting than I expected, occasional greatness aside.
NOTE: The Iron Claw is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Holt McCallany, Lily James, and Aaron Dean Eisenberg. Directed by: Sean Durkin.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!