The Iron Claw plays out as a conventional biopic, but it’s an emotionally effective one thanks to strong thematic throughlines of finding purpose amidst tragedy.
Fear of death is a human instinct that is so universal that it might be one of the few elements that connect everyone on a surface level around the globe. This fear tends to lead us to seek immortality in our body of work or family. We want to leave an important enough legacy for people to remember us long after we’re gone. That’s a belief that seems to be particularly true for those in the entertainment industry. It was certainly the case for Fritz Von Erich and his children’s real, tragic success story. The Iron Claw explores that story with simplicity and beautifully touching pathos.
The Von Erich brothers, an inseparable family of wrestlers, were pushed to their limits by their father to make history in the competitive world of professional wrestling in the 1980s. Through tragedy and triumph, under the shadow of their domineering father and coach, the brothers seek larger-than-life immortality on the biggest stage in sports.
At first glance, The Iron Claw is a by-the-numbers sports biography. In many ways, it is. It takes you through our characters’ lowest point, slowly finding success, tragedy emerges; you know the deal. What makes writer-director Sean Durkin’s film so endearing is its incredibly relatable character work. Yes, the film talks about legacy after death, but at its core, The Iron Claw is about children wanting to make their parents proud no matter the circumstances. It’s a rather easy beat the audience can identify with, and the movie’s actors do everything in their power to sell such ideas.
Jeremy Allen White (The Bear), Harris Dickinson (Triangle of Sadness), and Stanley Simons (Little America) each bring a distinct sense of sadness and excitement. White is the cool child with a heart of gold, Dickinson is the outspoken one with natural charisma, and Simons is the shy son with different interests than his siblings. They have different personalities but are linked by a common thread, their father. You’d expect a story like this would see a rivalry among the brothers appear, creating cheap drama. Instead, Durkin portrays these grown, muscular men almost as children trapped in adult bodies.
The siblings are physically imposing but have little experience with women, throw tantrums when things don’t go their way, and are helpless when their father scolds them. While White, Dickinson, and Simons portray these factors to perfection, there is no denying Zac Efron (Firestarter) is the standout from the ensemble. Efron has to navigate the characteristics of Kevin Von Erich – the constantly rejected child who continues to follow his dad’s orders – that make him different than his brothers, along with remaining stoic for almost the entirety of the film’s runtime. This stoicism becomes more powerful when Efron allows us to see through the cracks of his character and demonstrates that Kevin is just a vulnerable man seeking love and appreciation.
The dynamic between the Von Erich brothers wouldn’t be possible without Holt McCallany (Foundation) and Maura Tierney (American Rust) as Fritz and Doris Von Erich. McCallany isn’t going for subtlety in his performance, nor is Durkin’s script demanding him to. Fritz is cold-hearted, strict, and demanding of his kids to the point of physically and mentally breaking them. He’s the key component that explains why they are so naive in some areas. Tierney’s Doris, though certainly more loving, doesn’t intervene in her husband’s way of raising their children, coming off as an enabler. These two establish the groundwork for the never-ending cycle of pain and tragedy their family face.
Another welcome addition to The Iron Claw is Lily James’s (Pam & Tommy) Pam Adkisson, who becomes Kevin’s love interest. Her presence represents an interesting character, narrative, and tonal change. From a narrative and tonal perspective, James brings a much-needed sense of lightness. We get to have a break from the tension of the wrestling matches and Fritz’s abuse of his children anytime Pam shows up. Not only does she reward us with light-hearted scenes, but she also becomes the ray of sunshine in Kevin’s life. This is particularly crucial as tragedies unfold and Pam becomes one source for Kevin to express his repressed feelings.
To tell a story that on paper is quite simple but unfolds with mystery and sorrow, Sean Durkin pairs himself with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély. While The Iron Claw is very 80s aesthetically, with its elaborate costumes and a solid soundtrack, the way Erdély keeps storylines and character beats feel intimate is no small feat. The way the camera lingers on landscapes or key players tends to add a lot of weight to revelations within the narrative. Editor Matthew Hannam has a lot to do with this weight Erdély is working with, as Hannam makes us wait for answers. Without going into spoilers, this is quite effective during death scenes, funeral sequences, and confrontations.
Where The Iron Claw earns its heart is how it forces both its characters and the audience to face their mortality. When a set of figures starts to suffer an inexplicable series of tragedies, our characters begin to question their place on this earth, as well as how much importance and time they should dedicate to their father’s dream that has been forced upon them. It creates internal struggles that are devastating as they are beautiful. Beautiful in the manner that Durkin manages to find meaning and hope in death. Because although loss represents parting ways with loved ones and their memories appear distant, it also presents an opportunity for growth. That future generations will do better.
The Iron Claw’s only real flaw is that it moves away from one tragedy to the next rather quickly. It works to create an atmosphere of hopelessness and sudden tragedy, but you do wish you’d get to spend more time exploring what each death meant for our characters. All of that said, Sean Durkin and his cast and crew deliver a picture that will move you to your core. You’ll be bawling your eyes out at The Iron Claw’s final moments, whether you’re a wrestling fan or not because beyond exploring the sport, Durking takes moviegoers through a journey of pain, love, loss, success, and everything in between.
The Iron Claw will be released in US theaters nationwide on December 22, 2023 and in UK cinemas on February 9, 2024.