The Plot: Texas, 1979. Former wrestler Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) has instilled in his four sons the importance of success in and out of the wrestling ring. The eldest Kevin (Zac Efron) is bound for glory, a natural in the ring but the title shot eludes him. He wants it though, along with a burgeoning romance with Pam (Lily James). He’s backed up by David (Harris Dickinson), the next in line. Athlete Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) returns home and goes into the family trade. The youngest Mike (Stanley Simons) is more into music but is still drawn to the ring. The Von Erichs are apparently cursed though and with great success also comes great tragedy…
The Verdict: A24-produced wrestling picture The Iron Claw arrives in a whirl of giddy expectation and a theatrical dash of showmanship. The Von Erich wrestling family wouldn’t want it any other way, given that it relates their rise from rough regional bouts in Dallas to the national stage and then being inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame. Why should this matter on this side of the world though, when American wrestling is viewed as a far more colourful, theatrical affair than its international counterpart? Because at the heart of it, Sean Durkin’s latest film is a triumphant story of talented familial success but also a Greek Tragedy by stealth. It gently lulls you into that most clichéd of sports sub-genres: the scrappy underdog story as viewed through the lens of brotherly love. It then gradually breaks apart those bonds, not without a sense of sympathy.
Durkin’s well-written and keenly-observed script is a winner from early on, establishing the Von Erichs as a rowdy but likeable bunch who have a loyal following in Texas but not so much in rival states. Kevin has that eldest brother syndrome, wanting to take care of everyone but he also has to contend with his father Fritz’s own ambitions. It’s as if Fritz’s own failings in the ring to claim the heavyweight title have shifted the focus and immense pressure onto Kevin’s shoulders instead. Fritz makes no bones about ranking his favourite sons to their faces. He wants the best for them, but he also pushes them too hard and too fast and there are consequences for that. Durkin spends the first half building up a mythology about the Von Erichs, their claim to fame and why wrestling is in their lifeblood. In the second half, he then explodes the myth in the kind of unexpected fashion that would not normally be found in a rip-roaring sports movie where wrestling characters are slightly larger than life.
The Iron Claw, named after Fritz’s signature wrestling move copied by his sons later on, slowly but gradually tugs at the heartstrings in a non-manipulative way. There’s a sophistication in the way that Durkin approaches this shift in tone, marking it out as more than just the most impressive wrestling picture since, well, The Wrestler. In his previous film The Nest, he dissected a misguided father figure with an ego. That same theme follows through here, along with the limits of ambition and the long-term effects of loss – professional and, more importantly, personal. There’s even a touch of the poetic to it, which transcends from one world to another. It comfortably moves from the competitive world of wrestling to the competitive world of being a son, a father, a brothre. The drama outside the ring is the real clincher though.
Too often dismissed as just another pretty boy, Zac Efron is actually a decent actor when given a script that mines his innate likeability along with his ability to dig deeper into a character and pull a white rabbit out of the hat. He’s a strong physical presence throughout but he also hits the marks on the dramatic front too, rounding Kevin out as the man with the weight of his family on his broad shoulders. He’s well supported by the rest of the cast with each actor getting their moment to shine. Lily James appears to do a lot more than is on the page with Pam, moving beyond the typical wife role to build her up as the support structure for Kevin. Holt McCallany is terrific too, keeping Fritz relatable but a hardened man at that. In a less fiercely-competitive year, The Iron Claw might have scored a few Oscar nominations. It doesn’t need them for validation though. It’s well able to stand up on its own firm legs and grips like a vice with its mature approach to the intersection between professional success and family commitment. Go see.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
The Iron Claw
Grips like a vice
The Iron Claw (USA / UK / 15A / 132 mins)
In short: Grips like a vice
Directed by Sean Durkin.
Starring Zac Efron, Holt McCallany, Harris Dickinson, Jeremy Allen White, Stanley Simons, Lily James.