The Iron Claw is the movie wrestling fans have been waiting for. It’s a terrific tribute to one of the sport’s greatest dynasties.
PLOT: The true story of the inseparable Von Erich brothers, part of a professional wrestling dynasty in the early 1980s, as they endure tragedy and triumph under the shadow of their domineering father and coach.
REVIEW: The Iron Claw is a film that a lot of people in the movie and professional wrestling communities have been looking forward to. Especially after the episode of Dark Side of the Ring on the Von Erich “curse”, fascination with the subject has soared like a Kevin Von Erich flying crossbody. For me, too, having loved professional wrestling since I was a child, and having seen a lot of the Von Erich tragedy play out, I wondered how in the world Sean Durkin could turn this into a story that audiences could enjoy.
I’m not sure he accomplished that last bit. Don’t get me wrong; The Iron Claw is an incredible film; a harrowing, bittersweet exploration of brotherhood, legacy, and family obligation in one of the most cutthroat, secretive, isolated professions in the world. Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White (The Bear) packed on the muscle to play brothers Kevin Von Erich, the eldest, and Kerry Von Erich, the latter a natural athlete who would later spend some time in the then-WWF. That muscle helps them endure the physical rigors of the squared circle, but it also acts as something of an emotional armor against the enduring pressure of the Von Erich patriarch, Fritz Von Erich, played with taskmaster-like toughness by Holt McCallany. Fritz comes from a generation of wrestler where men were men, and you proved yourself by never getting injured and being tougher than the other guy. Wrestling might be “fake”, but the injuries are real and the physical grind is unparalleled.
Joining Efron and White in the stellar cast are Harris Dickinson as David Von Erich, considered the most gifted all-around star of the family; as well as newcomer Stanley Simons as Mike Von Erich. A soulful artist at heart, Mike is no match for the bruising demands by Fritz, who ranks his sons by who his favorite is, with Mike always down at the bottom. Not to be ignored, the women in the boys’ lives are given ample screen time, to show their lives outside of wrestling. I really enjoyed Lily James as Pam Adkisson, Kevin’s confident, assertive future wife. Maura Tierney has been deserving a big role for a while and it’s good to see her get one as Fritz’s wife and the boys’ mother, Doris, an old school Texas matriarch who watches closely and only steps in when needed. The only misstep in casting is hiring anyone to try and play “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair during one of his craziest, most erratic promos. I’m sorry but nobody could ever hope to match Slick Rick and the whole scene is just really awkward. Durkin should’ve paid whatever was necessary to get the archival footage, then hire someone to play Flair in the ring.
It’s clear that Durkin is a true wrestling fan himself, and you can see it in the way he shoots the action. No offense to Darren Aronofsky and some other directors I’ve seen do wrestling movies, but they have a tendency to just point the camera and let moves happen. But wrestling is about more than suplexes and dropkicks. It’s about style and storytelling, as well. In particular, World Class Championship Wrestling was a different product than the WWF or NWA. This was Texas wrestling; and it was scrappy, bordering on bar room brawling. The Von Erichs were like rock stars, and they brought a bit of flash and sizzle to the ring, but when it got down to it they could each hold their own in a fight. Durkin expertly captures the differences between each of the brothers, both outside of the ring and inside of it. Those differences would fade away when they were together. They truly complemented one another in just about every way.
Of course, The Iron Claw has to eventually get to the Von Erich “curse”, and the series of tragedies that tore them all apart. Durkin makes some choices to lessen the blow on audiences, but it’s a series of deaths, all sudden and shocking, that will punch you right in the heart. What makes it worse is how tightly the brothers would lean on one another for support in those times, only for it to not be enough. But Durkin also shows that the Von Erichs relied on each other during the happy times, as well. The Von Erichs stuck together to the end. Durkin’s explorations of unique family structures, seen in both Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Nest, continues to be a theme he’s expert at.
I was lucky enough to attend The Iron Claw‘s world premiere in Dallas, Texas, surrounded by local family and friends who knew the Von Erich story better than anyone. Kevin Von Erich, the sole remaining brother, was also there. It was a special moment to see this powerful film and to have it do the Von Erichs proper justice. While it’s not the kind of thing one watches to lighten the mood, The Iron Claw is ultimately a hopeful look at the enduring bonds of family. Professional wrestling always takes more than it gives to those who are part of that world, but the Von Erichs continue to carry on.