Sunday, March 03, 2024


Sean Durkin's THE IRON CLAW is an absolutely mesmerising and deeply moving drama that tells the story of the real life Von Erich family. I had no knowledge of them before this film but apparently they are wrestling royalty, infamous for a much-mythologised series of tragedies. 

As the film opens, we are treated to a black-and-white flashback where the paterfamilias, Fritz Von Erich, is apparently denied his chance to win a title. His revenge is to seemingly raise a large family of boys who are pressured and groomed to win his approval and also win wrestling titles.  The Iron Claw is thus not just his trademark wrestling move, but also the way in which he exerts toxic control over his family, the wages of which we will see play out over the running time.

Zac Efron stars as Kevin von Erich.  It's a performance of great vulnerability and physical prowess that reminded me - inevitably - of Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER. Efron bulked up for the role and in the opening shot of him the camera interrogates every vein and muscle on his body. He is a machine created by his father for vengeance. Efron's mournful performance is a career-best and no doubt benefits from what we bring to seeing him on screen. His real-life arc from teen idol to indie darling by way of addiction and body dysmorphia adds a layer of pathos to this role. The parallels between Hollywood and wrestling are painful to contemplate - the extreme body mutilation and pressure to perform - the substance abuse and toxic svenaglis - it's all here.

Next comes Kevin's brother David, played by THE TRIANGLE OF SADNESS' Harris Dickinson. David is the natural showman, more articulate than Kevin, and so finds himself top of his father's preference ranking of his sons - a game that both Kevin and David seem willing to play.

We are in trickier water with the two youngest sons.  Kerry (The Bear's Jeremy Allen White) wants to compete in the Olympics, but his dreams are dashed by the 1980 boycott. He is pulled into wrestling, is good at it, but resents it. White's performance is one of such searing sadness that he barely needs to speak to convey the tragedy of his situation. Finally we have young Mike (Stanley Simons). He's just a kid who wants to make music with his literal garage band. He has no place in the ring, but what father wants, father gets.

All of this feels fairly hopeless and as a study of male toxicity it is. Maura Tierney gets a great scene as the religious oppressed mother who lets all of this happen. And Lily James is impressive in a small role as Kevin's wife. And really it's through her that the film avoids being unilaterally miserable. Because by anchoring in Kevin in marriage, the joy of fatherhood, and the opportunity to be a different kind of man, she gives us a path out of the Iron Claw. There's a scene near the end of this film between Kevin and his sons that made me cry. I don't want to spoil it - but it's one of the most well-earned moments of hope in recent cinema.

Kudos to Sean Durkin for writing and directing such a pellucid, affecting film. I absolutely loved his recreation of late 70s and early 80s small-town America - the music, the clothes, the cars, the garage bands. I loved the cinematography - the apparently meticulous recreation of the fight scenes - and the astonishing performances Durkin pulls from his cast. I do not understand why this film wasn't as big a deal on the awards circuit as THE WRESTLER was all those years ago. It deserves all the plaudits and all the success. And Efron deserves his own version of a McConaugheyssance. 

THE IRON CLAW is rated R and has a running time of 132 minutes. It is on global release.

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