The Iron Claw, Sean Durkin’s foray into the tumultuous world of the Von Erich wrestling dynasty, made up of multiple generations of wrestling stars and a number of notable title wins, juxtaposes the silly spectacle of wrestling with a profoundly dysfunctional family drama. Starring Zac Efron as much-too-beefy wrestler Kevin Von Erich, this A24 film offers an intriguing, if somewhat limited, look into the larger-than-life spectacle of the wrestling world and the grim reality of a family marred by real life tragedy.
At the core of The Iron Claw lies a striking paradox: the dazzling allure of the competition and center stage of wrestling stardom contrasted with a haunting narrative of inner turmoil and familial despair. Efron, with a physically transformative and emotionally resonant portrayal of Kevin, is the cipher for this divide, capturing the essence of a man torn between the roar of the crowd and the silent battles tearing up the family he cherishes above all else. To him, wrestling is one of the most important things he does but it’s also a means to an end: spending times with his also-ran brothers, David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and Mike (Stanley Simons), whom he loves more than anything.
The film, while accomplished at illustrating the physicality and the behind-the-scenes training that goes into wrestling, struggles to elevate the sport beyond its perceived “fakeness”. One of the film’s shortcomings is its handling of this paradoxical nature of professional wrestling. Despite the sport’s carefully choreographed theatricality, The Iron Claw fails to compellingly address the dichotomy between the staged nature of the fights and the very real injuries sustained by its performers. The audience is left questioning how, in a world where punches are pulled and outcomes predetermined, the physical toll on the wrestlers remains so devastatingly high. A question that The Iron Claw struggles to answer.
While the film adeptly navigates how wrestling came to define the rise and fall of the Von Erich clan, it skirts around the deeper, more perplexing aspects of the sport. This narrative gap leaves a viewer pondering the authenticity of the wrestling world portrayed on screen, where the lines between performance and reality are blurred, but the consequences are all too real. In his 2008 film The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky made the stakes of the sport for one battered individual clear and personal, something Durkin’s film fails to manage.
While the script from the Martha March May Marlene writer-director can’t explain some of the questionable “competitiveness” of the sport, it does clearly define the ascent to fame within the wrestling world: deliver compelling performances, gain visibility, and ascend the ladder – much like any other career. Tragically, that pathway is lined with pitfalls for almost all who share the assumed, and allegedly cursed, Von Erich surname.
The real tragedy of The Iron Claw is found not in the ring, but within the walls of the Von Erich household. Stern matriarch Doris Von Erich (Maura Tierney) too often turns to prayer in times of need, rather than comforting her children, while Holt McCallany’s turn as Fritz Von Erich shows a father more interested in molding his sons into wrestling prodigies than nurturing them as individuals.
The rigid expectations of masculinity, the suppression of emotional expression, and the forced pursuit of sports over artistic interests create a harrowing environment for the Von Erich brothers. It’s Toxic Masculinity 101 as the film poignantly demonstrates how the lack of parental empathy and understanding contributes to the brothers’ respective downfalls, painting a vivid picture of the destructive impact of emotionally stunted parenting. This comes to a head on multiple occasions as the Von Erichs sons weigh the expectations foisted upon them against their happiness, determining on more than one occasion that they can no longer stand the pressure.
Durkin’s direction captures the essence of the 1980s wrestling scene, blending the flamboyance of the sport with the stark reality of upended lives. Compelling throughout, the film moves at a steady pace that’ll keep audiences leaning in and sufficiently stirred, though one is left with the lingering sense that deeper narrative layers remain unexplored, as if we’re only skimming through the highlight reel of a more complex story.
Amidst the muscle and mayhem, Durkin uncovers the true heart of the film in the brotherly bonds shared by the Von Erich boys. However, the emotional pitches of Durkin’s work leave the viewer somewhat underwhelmed. The tragedy is evident, yet it seldom stirs deep emotions. While the film isn’t devoid of impact, its emotional punches feel somewhat subdued. In moments ripe for a powerful impact, there’s a noticeable restraint, resulting in a narrative that delivers less force than anticipated, akin to a hold that isn’t tight enough to clinch the champion’s belt.
CONCLUSION: Sean Durkin’s portrayal of the Von Erich family is steeped in tragedy and bolstered by a powerful ensemble cast. However, the film struggles to navigate through different emotional landscapes and falls short in presenting wrestling as the harrowing spectacle the film intends it to be.
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