‘The Iron Claw’ Review: Zac Efron Dominates in Sean Durkin’s Heartbreaking Wrestling Family Tragedy

Jeremy Allen White and Holt McCallany also give powerful performances

"The Iron Claw"
"The Iron Claw" (CREDIT: Courtesy of A24)

When it comes to professional wrestling I can’t distinguish a piledriver from a flying elbow drop. So, please, pardon my obliviousness when I came to see Sean Durkin’s fact-based sports saga about the Texas wrestling dynasty the Von Erichs starring Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White. I anticipated an action-driven sports feature. Entertaining, sweaty and triumphant, or tinged by the agony of defeat and the power of athletic resurrection.

What I didn’t expect was a male weepie.

Like one of the champs in that genre, “Field of Dreams,” “The Iron Claw” squeezes wrestling’s agony, ecstasy and Americanness for all its Gatorade, alongside exploring the fraught bonds of fathers and sons.

Set in 1980s blue-collar Texas against a soundtrack of classic hard rock from Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” the movie shreds. (Given their fate, maybe the fighting family should have feared the reaper a little bit more.)

The WWE Hall of Fame inducted the Von Erichs in 2009. However, the wrestling clan are known as much for the family curse and a string of lamentable tragedies, as for their triumphs on the mat.

Patriarch Fritz Von Erich, known in the ring as “The Iron Claw,” wanted, above all things, to be the heavy-weight champion of the world. When he didn’t achieve that goal for himself, he turned to his brood of brawny sons. Autocratic and insistent, he trained them hard, urging them to go for the gold at any cost. The boys’ need for their father’s love and approval, and Fritz’s desire for their absolute obedience, is the push-pull of the movie.

Perfectly cast as Fritz, Holt McCallany has played tough guys before, from the Brad Pitt classic “Fight Club” to TV’s “Mindhunter.” With a crew cut, a square jaw and a raw physical menace, he embodies a man of complete mental clarity, a throwback to another time where father knew best and sons behaved, or were banished.

Punching and kicking their way through the narrative are his offspring. Efron plays Kevin, the oldest surviving son. Although people, including his future wife Pam (a vibrant Lily James), generally treat him as the oldest, he has a second son mentality. Among the biggest manifestations of the family curse is when the biological eldest was electrocuted at an early age. In some ways, this first major loss is Kevin’s phantom limb, the vulnerability he overcompensates for in his struggle to capture his father’s approval.

Efron is no longer the tuneful Disney star who broke out as the lead in the “High School Musical” trilogy. Now, at 36, his face rearranged by a jaw-shattering car accident in 2013, he has done the actorly thing (calling Christian Bale and Charlize Theron). He’s bulked up, even Hulked up, to play a loyal son who desperately seeks his father’s approval in the ring while surrounded by a sea of brothers who idolize him.

With a chest like two beef roasts and mammoth musculature bisected by ropy veins, Efron has reconfigured himself as a leading man, while the sensitive boy still stares out of blazing blue eyes that can’t be muscled over.

As Kevin’s brother, Kerry, Golden-Globe-winner Jeremy Allen White (“The Bear”) is in the Michael Corleone role. Away at college, he’s escaped the family business. As a competitive discus thrower he’s bound for his own glory, the Olympics. But when President Jimmy Carter calls for a boycott of the 1980 competition in Moscow his independent dreams are dashed and Kerry hops on a bus home. He joins the family business, one that will bring him great acclaim and, in trying to cope with the pressure, a devastating motorcycle accident and ensuing painkiller addiction.

There is ample sturm und drang. Brother David (“Triangle of Sadness” male model Harris Dickinson), for a time, eclipses Kevin and Kerry in the ring, securing his primary spot in their father’s light before the “curse” strikes. Sensitive musician Mike (Stanley Simons) has no reason to join his brothers in competition, but bows to family pressure and his own tragic end. The choke holds change but the song remains the same.

Throughout, there is a beauty to this litter of sons, as seen through Kevin’s troubled, ultimately teary blue eyes. Their closeness is palpable, a bond built through hours of play and mutual protection from a father who demands fealty no matter what’s best for his sons individually. The clutch of actors earned a deserved Best Ensemble from the National Board of Review and they are believable as boys, and as men, whose competition doesn’t unify them but rather divides them.

Whether a viewer believes in the Von Erich curse, or simply accepts the relentless chain of tragedies the wrestling dynasty experienced as dumb bad luck, the family saga is strong medicine. The fighters’ almost-comic muscles form a fleshy armor around these fierce competitors. But no punch can protect their vulnerable hearts from being worn down by tragedy, violence and the fickle finger of fate.

“The Iron Claw” devastates. In the final minutes, Kevin looks at his own sons playing catch on their front lawn. When, sitting cross-legged on the sidelines, he begins to cry, his kids comfort him. The audience will likely weep, too, for what’s been lost and what’s been gained.


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