The Iron Claw (dir. Sean Durkin)
By: Adam Freed
Professional wrestling isn’t real. If it were, it would mean the larger than life hyper masculine acrobats populating its history would need to be considered beyond their ring prowess. If those men were flesh and blood rather than mindless Adonises of entertainment, it would require the world to weigh the physical and emotional price they pay for their stint in the spotlight. This consideration is the masterful design of Sean Durkin’s electrified biopic The Iron Claw. Using Carter to Reagan era Texas as its backdrop, The Iron Claw sets its sights on the Von Erich family, a regional wrestling institution headed by its patriarch Fritz Von Erich. Once a southern wrestling icon himself, the father of four, played by a superb Holt McCallany, turns his attention to the relentless training and promotion of his four sons, all in line to carry on their father’s painstaking passion.
The joy in watching The Iron Claw is that it cautiously circumvents genre defining tropes that may limit the film as being only about athletics or a single athlete. In lieu of conventional storytelling tactics, Durkin wisely leans into the unique thematic bonds of brotherhood that exist amongst the four Von Erich brothers Kevin, Kerry, David and Michael. It is clear that life as Fritz’s son comes with the burden of relentless expectation, yet those who survive their father’s onslaught are prepared for greatness as ring performers. The first of Durkin’s masterful achievements is that his period piece leaves no room for debate as to being the greatest performance of Zac Efron’s career. As eldest brother Kevin, Efron finally frees himself from the decades long label of teen idol, as he and Sean Durkin unlock the wealth of talent that has long been welling behind his pale blue eyes. Efron’s physical transformation into the marble statuesque Kevin Von Erich readies his performance to decimate audiences with an emotional Trojan Horse in which the warrior’s physique he so meticulously chiseled for years prior to production, acts as a sly delivery device for a gentle spirit and humble heart.
Nestled within the cursed tragedy of father and sons is a modern condemnation of the traditional definitions of masculinity and the long lasting damage inflicted by those generationally held notions. If Efron is the emotional knockout punch of the film, it is his younger brother Kerry, captured memorably by Jeremy Allen White (The Bear) who is not only the most accomplished wrestler in the family but is also the most tormented soul of the foursome. Kerry Von Erich’s legacy is closest in service to his father’s dream, which inevitably requires him to fly closest to the sun. Jeremy Allen White for all intents and purposes is on the brink of superstardom and his maniacally loyal portrait of Kerry taps into an energy that renders him distinct from the rest of his brothers. The Iron Claw can be viewed as a cautionary tale about the symbiotic relationship between fathers and sons. The film questions the blind desire to emulate even the worst qualities in a father as well as the corrosive pursuit of greatness regardless of its cost. The Iron Claw is about as complex an experience as one can have in a theater. It is both joyous and devastating. It overcomes the scripted nature of its subject matter and forces audiences to fall in love with characters despite their shortcomings. Sean Durkin’s powerhouse film explores with delicacy and tact an array of meaningful human experiences. Maybe wrestling is real after all?
Target Score: 9/10 - The Iron Claw is not only the greatest wrestling film of all time, but is instantly one of the best sports stories ever told. Lifted by the career defining, cynic annihilating performance of Zac Efron, Sean Durkin’s film is a must see. The Von Erich family of professional wrestling rose to regional fame in the latter half of the 20th Century. Now, thanks to The Iron Claw, the Von Erich name will live in perpetuity.
Although The Iron Claw was a 2023 release, the review was published in 2024.