Everyone loves a feel-good sports story. People love to be uplifted by people who can push their bodies to the limit to do extraordinary things and inspire a nation. After all, there’s a reason everything from Rocky to Rudy can make a grown man burst into tears. But there are exceptions to this rule. After all, Raging Bull, often listed as the greatest sports movie of all time, is all about how obsession with perfection will destroy the human will and leave you a broken man. So too is the case with The Iron Claw, a film less about wrestling and more about generational trauma.
The Iron Claw follows the tragic story of the Von Erich Family, a group of six (condensed to five for the film) brothers pushed into wrestling by their former-journeyman father Fritz (Holt McCallany). There’s eldest brother Kevin (Zac Efron), favorite brother and Olympian Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), aspiring David (Harris Dickinson), and sensitive Mike (Stanley Simons). Considered cursed since the death of the eldest brother in infancy, the Von Erich brothers each strive to become champion-caliber wrestlers and win their father’s respect. However, pressure and tragedy are an unhealthy combo, and soon Kevin finds himself facing a much more haunting reality than just the failure of his dreams.
Let’s not beat around the bush with the history here, especially as most of the audience I saw this film with seemed completely traumatized when they realized where the story was heading: by the end of this film, Kevin is the only brother left alive, with two of the brothers taking their own life. It is a bleak story that touches on the tragedies of pressure, of the pratfalls of rigid masculinity and hyperfixation, and the necessity of showing emotion and self-reflection. As the tragedies pile on, and their father continues his lessons of “the only way towards victory is to be the best and beat everyone else,” while never showing your pain or emotion, eventually the grief and the self-loathing will become too much.
The Iron Claw is about what the quest for perfection will do the human spirit, and what happens when your dreams are suddenly taken away from you. The Von Erichs are desperate for greatness, and to be the best wrestlers possible. The more their tragedies mount, and the more pressure they place themselves under, the more it becomes impossible for them to release their emotions in a healthy manner. This is made all the more terrible as it becomes clear that “being the best” is synonymous with their father’s love. If acceptance and approval is contingent on wrestling success, and that path is suddenly stripped from you, there is no path forward but self-loathing and pain.
Durkin does an effective job showing the strain that this training takes on his characters, as well as where they are left mentally when they can no longer define themselves through wrestling. In fact, he may be too effective. One of the film’s largest detriments is the way it condenses the tragic scope of this story – and not just the fact that an entire brother who also committed suicide was excised from the plot. Oftentimes, major events are required to, inexplicably, happen one on top of the other – a brother gets married followed immediately by a death; a brother wins a wrestling match followed immediately by a major injury. It’s all so much, presented in a way that allows little time to process, so as to question the believability and emotional stakes of the entire production.
Still, Durkin is a strong enough director that nitpicks like this don’t hinder the film too much. Durkin utilizes quiet pushes and pulls, and allows the camera to linger on the actors’ faces so the performers can tell their own story. This is particularly effective on the the slow reveal of Kerry’s horrific injuries after a hard cut of him driving his motorcycle too fast. The wrestling sequences are lively and riveting, especially a sequence set to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” Even Durkin’s blatant references to Raging Bull don’t feel as forced as they could (or should). Durkin’s only misstep arrives in a fantasy sequence that arrives late in the final act and undermines the emotion of the moment. Yet even then, it never hinders the fine filmmaking that came before.
Of course, The Iron Claw primarily works on the strength of its four lead performers. Efron in particular shines, finally managing to establish himself as an Actor, and not just an attractive teen heartthrob. He shines with most of the material he’s given, including his bad attempts at kayfabe and his rizzless flirting attempts with his future wife. But he’s at his best when given the chance to showcase the effects of grief and depression – his final twenty minutes are incredible. He is only matched by McCallany as patriarch Fritz, who plays the most honest, realistic portrayal of an assh*le I’ve seen on film in a long time.
Amongst the Von Erich brothers, Harris Dickinson is perhaps the standout as the family’s best “wrestler” – it is easily his best role to date in a rapidly rising career. Jeremy Allen White, meanwhile, doesn’t get the same material he’s been blessed with in roles like Lip or Carmy, but as he always does, he dominates the role through his natural charisma whenever he’s onscreen. The only weak link is Simons, although in his defense, the film rarely knows what to do with Mike as a character. Maura Tierney doesn’t really have much to do as matriarch Doris, while the always-great Lily James elevates an underwritten Pam Von Erich (Kevin’s wife) based on her natural star power. Oh, and while he’s a minor role, a quick shout out to Aaron Dean Eisenberg, who is hysterically brilliant as a showboating Ric Flair.
The Iron Claw is a quietly devastating film destined to ruin your holiday season. It’s not perfect – it missteps, and streamlines, and occasionally feels like it’s checking boxes. But it’s also emotionally astute, expertly acted, and quietly profound. It is a testament to family, a call to action for mental health, and a treatise on overcoming trauma and finding peace within yourself. It’s not a film I’ll find myself thinking about often (or allow myself to think about often); but at the very least, it establishes White as a star, and Efron as an actor.
The Iron Claw is now playing in theaters nationwide