‘The Iron Claw’ is a Tragic, Tremendous Tale of a Cursed Family (Review)

by | Dec 21, 2023

The true story of the Von Erich wrestling family is powerfully told in A24’s newest sports drama. 

Professional wrestling has had a rocky history on the narrative side of the silver screen, from the Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan produced piece of 80s cheese No Holds Barred and raunchy comedy Ready To Rumble to Darren Aronofsky’s drama The Wrestler which focused on the wrestling industry’s physical and personal effects on its aged main character. Another film on the latter end of the spectrum is The Iron Claw, which tells the tragic but true story about the four brothers in the Von Erich wrestling family with such a delicate hand, and a passion for the sport in its humble beginnings, that the results amount to one of the best films of the year. 

In The Iron Claw, Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) is on track to contend for the National Wrestling Alliance World’s Heavyweight Championship with full support from his fellow brother in life and sport David (Harris Dickinson), as well as his trainer and head promoter father Fritz (Holt McCallany), while his mother Doris (Maura Tierney) and aspiring artist youngest brother Mike (Stanley Simons) support their wrestling family from the stands. Kevin and David’s younger brother Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) even joins the family business after he can’t compete with the United States track and field team in the 1980 Summer Olympics when the country refused to participate in the ceremony.

However, being a Von Erich comes with rumors of what Kevin refers to as the Von Erich family curse, which was seemingly triggered when his father changed his last name to that of his mother, whose family had suffered a myriad of tragedies. The only way to beat the curse is to be in Fritz’s own words, ‘the toughest, the strongest, the most successful, the absolute best, so that no one would ever hurt them.’ But Fritz’s overbearing physical and mental demands on his sons has various but harrowing effects on each of them that contribute to the family’s strife even as their popularity inside the squared circle soars.

The script is one of the many elements to make The Iron Claw compelling. Writer/director Sean Durkin conveys the psychological effects of Fritz’s regiments on Kevin Von Erich with sad but honest realism, endearing us to him through the eyes of his girlfriend-turned-wife Pam Adkisson (Lily James) when she meets him for the first time only to be disappointed when doesn’t get the hint she likes him after a tag team match that bruised his eye and knocked him silly. 

The writing also does a good job of avoiding the standard sports movie cliches to focus on each brother’s internal frustrations that pile up with every tragedy, in addition to the mental health issues and how their lack of care played a factor in the Von Erich family’s downward spiral. One example comes in an early scene where Kevin warns his mother about Fritz’s demeanor toward Mike, only for her to respond with, “That’s between them,” to Kevin’s disappointment.

There’s a lot of empathy for the Von Erichs on the pages of The Iron Claw, and that goes hand-in-hand with the restraint Durkin employs in his direction. Fritz is a constant presence in the lives of Kevin and his brothers, watching them from afar during their matches, which play out in wide shots as they were broadcast on television back in the day, only to cut in tight to emphasize the pain of the hazards that come with the sport, such as Kevin’s agonized reaction to landing hard on the concrete floor outside the ring during a match against Harley Race. 

On that note, Durkin’s care for the Von Erich brothers matches a passion for 80s wrestling, as that era of televised combat has been lovingly recreated with true authenticity, from the sets on which Kevin performs a pre-taped segment and the brothers’ ragged yet childlike hairstyles, to the square wipe editing techniques that transition from the broadcast set to the wrestling ring and graphics that set the stage for a pivotal point in the brothers’ wrestling careers and lives.

And the entire ensemble of The Iron Claw does its job by putting in captivating performances across the board, with Zac Efron making a move out of comedy into dramatic fare with what’s arguably his career-best work. As Kevin, he sells the lasting effects on Fritz’s irrational treatments and high standards remarkably via powerful nuances from scene to scene, whether he’s striding down a hospital repressing his emotions as prognosis from a doctor runs in his head, or cutting a wrestling promo in a TV studio, cursing to himself after having to start over, with his yearning to be a perfect performer clearly visible through the tears in his eyes.

There are some pacing issues toward the end if only because each tragedy that befalls the Von Erich brothers comes one after the other, to the point where the reasonably hopeful ending suddenly comes out of nowhere, and the depiction of wrestling legend Ric Flair by Aaron Dean Eisenberg comes off so cartoonish in its execution, that his brief performance sticks out like a sore thumb during a pivotal moment in Kevin’s progression.

It’s also worth debating among wrestling aficionados that there was more competition and animosity amongst the Von Erich brothers than Durkin’s latest suggests there actually was. But the film’s well-meaning intent is to tell a devastating cautionary tale about the consequences of old-school masculinity on a band of brothers as well as an entire generation of men, and The Iron Claw achieves all that and more with its thesis about the true measure of a man is one in touch with his emotions. It’s an important message as society prioritizes mental health today, and one that makes The Iron Claw one of the best films ever made about professional wrestling.


RATING: ★★★1/2

(out of five stars)