‘The Iron Claw’ review: A24’s pro-wrestling biopic is gorgeous and evocative, but ultimately pulls its punches


With The Iron Claw, writer/director Sean Durkin not only brings to theaters the tragic story of one of pro wrestling’s most famous families, but also Zac Efron’s career-best work. Centering on the Von Erich wrestling dynasty and the “curse” said to have plagued them through the ’70s and ’80s, The Iron Claw follows four brothers who fought for their family legacy, yet suffered under the training of their domineering father. 

While Durkin ably captures the era-specific atmosphere of their life in Dallas, he loses sight of how that family element informed the worst moments of the brothers’ lives. This is, after all, a tale of fathers, sons, and deep misfortune, brought to life by a powerhouse ensemble. Although brimming with death and loss, The Iron Claw has a strangely mechanical approach that pokes instead of probes.  

Most wrestling fans know the details of this family saga, but others might be shocked by the accumulation of misery, pushing the limits of how much one family can endure. The film is a resounding success in that one regard. However, with few exceptions, the real events end up far more observed than felt, as though Durkin were avoiding the most painful memories of a famous family he reveres. These moments fail to resonate, so The Iron Claw ends up a pretty good movie that could have — and should have — been great.

How does The Iron Claw approach the “Von Erich curse”?

Kerry on a motorcycle in "The Iron Claw."

Credit: A24

 “Mom tried to protect us with God. Dad tried to protect us with wrestling,” explains Kevin Von Erich (Efron), the rising wrestling superstar who is the film’s center. The oldest living Von Erich brother, Kevin looks out for up-and-coming wrestler David (Triangle of Sadness‘s Harris Dickinson), professional discus-thrower Kerry (The Bear‘s Jeremy Allen White), and musician Mike (Stanley Simons). But, as he warns his love interest Pam May (Lily James), there is a family curse that took his older brother when they were very young. That loss sparked a local superstition that Kevin doesn’t fully believe, at least at first. But the more their ruthlessly macho father Fritz (Holt McCallany) pushes his boys toward in-ring glory — and well past their breaking point — the more this “curse” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

As Kevin explains, the belief in the Dallas wrestling scene is that this curse is tethered to the family’s name, which Fritz — born Jack Adkisson — adopted from his mother’s maiden name, Erich. This leads to a few poignant dramatic notes that see Kevin wrestling with his lineage and his wrestling moniker, but there’s also a key detail left out of this history that softens the blow. 

In reality, Fritz chose the name “Von Erich” to enhance his heel persona as a Nazi villain in the 1950s. The film even opens with an ominous black-and-white flashback to Fritz in his heyday (albeit sans any hint of Nazi insignia). He looms large over the camera, pummeling an opponent into submission with his signature move, “the Iron Claw,” a skull-crushing vice grip. As movie titles go, The Iron Claw is both a familiar throwback to this maneuver (which the Von Erich sons would eventually adopt, even as heroes or “babyfaces”) and a poetic description of the kind of hold Fritz had over his children’s lives. Yet despite wading into uncomfortable territory with Fritz’s hyper-masculine approach to fatherhood, The Iron Claw pulls its punches. 

The film certainly has a throughline about the self-destructive nature of professional wrestling, which takes its toll physically and mentally. But similar to the avoidance of Fritz’s Nazi gimmick, The Iron Claw makes the family patriarch too pleasant by omission. Just as often as McCallany is stern and calculating — like when he openly ranks the boys from his favorite to least over breakfast — he has a warm and welcoming presence, with wide smiles that celebrate his sons’ achievements. In theory, this realistically mirrors the nature of toxic parenthood and the way dependency forms through abusers running alternatingly hot and cold. Yet the movie seldom tips Fritz over into territory harsh enough to link his actions to the eventual horrid outcomes of his sons’ lives. Something is missing here. The Iron Claw runs over two hours, yet it still feels truncated, as though several scenes threading the needle between his parenting and the boys’ psychology and physiology had been ruthlessly snipped.

The “curse,” therefore, takes on an ephemeral quality once all the boys join their father’s promotion, World Class Championship Wrestling, without necessarily being prepared for the physical and emotional toll. This arguably impacts Kevin the most, straining his relationship with Pam in concerning ways. He spends more and more time away from her, in fear of the curse being communicable. But the more his brothers suffer, the less his parents factor into the movie. When tragedy strikes, their mother Doris (Maura Tierney) takes comfort in religion, dragging Fritz and the boys to church every Sunday. But that’s about the only thing we learn about her — other than the fact that she, like Fritz, would rather leave the boys’ personal and psychological issues alone, for them to discuss between themselves. 

Fritz, though he has plenty of screen time, exists as though he were a ghost, unable to escape that initial monochrome flashback. While this works to establish the emotional boundaries of the story — a father unable to escape his past, in which he never moved beyond the precipice of glory — he ends up lacking a sense of imposing physicality and emotional brutality for his children in the present. He pushes them, but never demolishes them; they seem to do that all on their own. Fritz’s professional disappointments come up plenty in the dialogue, but the moments when the edit connects the family’s tragedies to his tough-love training are few and far between. So, when Kevin finally does confront his father during a particularly charged moment late into the film, it doesn’t carry the weight and on-screen history that it should, despite the performers working overtime to ensure a sense of lived reality about each interaction. It’s as though even the camera was convinced that the Von Erich curse was something evil lurking in the ether, rather than the end result of a father trying to capture his lost glory by living vicariously through his sons

The Iron Claw takes big liberties with the Von Erich brothers to build a compelling (if false) tale of brotherhood. 

Mike plays music in "The Iron Claw."

Credit: A24

The movie undoubtedly succeeds in fleshing out the Von Erich sons, both as individuals and as brothers. The first image of Efron’s Kevin is him waking up for a morning run, via a close-up of his face and bare chest. There’s immediately something off-putting about him. Before Kevin ever speaks, the bulging veins on his discolored torso (hinting, perhaps, at the character’s steroid use) consume the entire frame as Kevin lumbers out of his childhood bed. The real Kevin had a leaner physique than most wrestling stars, but the movie’s hulking conception of him immediately captures a man uncomfortable in his skin, a transformation that Efron hurls himself toward with fearless commitment.

While Kevin might want the spotlight in the ring, outside of it there’s something tragic in how he struggles socially. Pam tries to flirt with him after a show, but he seems lost, as though he’s never been exposed to the real world beyond the confines of wrestling. The real Kevin had a deeper voice and came off as much more self-assured. Efron’s soft, boyish approach helps externalize lingering insecurities while making him feel awkward in any environment. He’s a man trapped in arrested development, and while Efron takes to the wrestling action like a seasoned pro — the air-time he gets on some of Kevin’s leaps are mesmerizing — his in-ring appearance, barefoot and in white trunks, makes him seem like some perverse creation, an overgrown, muscular baby, created by a mad wrestling scientist. 

If Kevin’s professional life is spent fulfilling his father’s pursuit, his personal life is equally stunted, though Efron imbues it with an innocent charm. Kevin wants nothing more than to spend time with his brothers; even his dreams of marriage and settling down involve making room for them on his ranch. Brotherhood is all he knows, and his initial interactions with David and Mike hint at a multifaceted personal history, even though the film has little time to explore this. 

In Dickinson’s hands, David might seem, at first, like a cardboard cutout — the nice, straightforward brother, who tries hard and diligently follows his father’s orders. But Dickinson navigates this seeming simplicity with a sense of radiance, and it pays off in spades, given his place in the plot. Ranked for a pivotal time as Fritz’s favorite, he starts to feel the effects of the bar being set too high for any of them, including himself.

Mike (Simons), meanwhile, is the skinny and meek son; this character is imbued with some qualities and plot points of his real-life brother Chris, the youngest Von Erich who’s been strangely excluded from the film. He’s a teenager with a musician’s soul and an artist’s melancholy that Simons lets fester in silence the more that Mike is pushed into a physical sport for which he’s hardly prepared. Like Efron’s boyish approach to Kevin, Simons’s conception of Mike departs from reality in ways that suit the story. Within his artistic interests, a subtle effeminacy silently speaks to how he fails to meet the masculine expectations of the Von Erich patriarch and the wrestling world at large. And yet, Mike’s attempt to be the round peg who’ll fit the square hole helps evoke a loving sympathy, both from the audience and from Kevin and David, who help Mike sneak out to a musical gig after Doris puts her foot down.

Kerry was the golden boy, until his Olympic dream ends (through no fault of his own). When Kerry returns home, his father immediately thrusts him into the wrestling spotlight, as though he were another opportunity to elevate the Von Erich name. While the real Kerry was considered the most charismatic and movie star-like of the bunch, White’s approach is steeped in rage and disappointment after the Olympic boycott. (In reality, Kerry debuted for WCCW long before this happened, but it makes for intriguing drama). If one were recasting the brothers solely on physical appearance, then White and Efron ought to have switched roles, but they each embody their specific versions of Kerry and Kevin in pitch-perfect ways.  

Even Pam’s performance becomes a lens to better understand Kevin. James, who plays Pam with an angelic radiance, approaches the part with wide-eyed enthusiasm, to the point that she doesn’t seem real. Is her earnest interest “kayfabe,” the wrestling tenet of maintaining a character to sell the audience on an illusion? Given his inexperience outside the ring, he has trouble telling whether or not she’s being genuine at first — whether she has a real interest in him, or whether she’s a climber or groupie — and James’s performance guides us through this uncertainty. The more James grows accustomed to the Von Erich family, the more comfortable and realistic her performance becomes.

Durkin’s direction gears each scene and character towards an alluring present, resulting not only in some of the year’s best performances, but a vivid sense of reality in the moment. However, his specific approach to weaving these scenes and moments together ends up costing the film its emotional impact.

Sean Durkin’s filmmaking both helps and hurts the story.

The Von Erich family huddles in the ring in "The Iron Claw."

Credit: A24

Early into the runtime, a rhythmic long take reminiscent of Goodfellas (and set to Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear The Reaper) gets us in tune with the brothers, and with the ins and outs of their environment as they enter the Sportatorium, the lively wrestling arena owned by their father. As Kevin and Kerry plan their upcoming match with a pair of other wrestlers, they speak in wrestling jargon, quickly establishing for the audience the scripted nature of the sport — which was, at the time, mostly hidden from the public. However, this dialogue also comes off as rehearsed rather than routine, as though these athletes had never before undertaken this task. Despite the accuracy of the terminology, the brothers don’t fully feel as though they’ve grown up in and around this industry. 

Durkin’s visual approach, however, works to hide the seams of the actors’ in-ring inexperience. The film mimics the up-close-and-personal camera approach innovated by WCCW, which gives the wrestling scenes a sense of chaotic intensity as the camera zips past and around them. Durkin is also adept at blocking and crafting evocative, memorable images outside the ring, but they occasionally work against the story he’s telling. There’s a mesmerizing series of shots that all fade into each other, starting with a close-up of a syringe one of the brothers injects into his thigh, and followed by close-ups of Kevin, David and Kerry’s faces, all overlapping, their sense of identity all blurring together. We never actually learn who was doing the injecting, or even what they were injecting — a steroid? A painkiller? A recreational drug? This is vital information, given the way the tragic results of their lifestyle slowly creep up on each brother one by one, rather than altogether.

This interchangeability bleeds into the way Durkin frames each tragedy in their lives. Take, for instance, a gruesome injury suffered by Kerry, which jeopardizes his wrestling career. Rather than exploring the physical and psychological fallout of this event — whether through Kerry’s eyes, or the reactions of anyone in his family — Durkin instead builds a bizarre sense of mystery around Kerry’s injury and reveals it like a plot twist, before skipping past any concerns he might have about it, or his family’s reactions.  

Most of the plot unfolds this way. Injuries and other life-changing moments are portended by dramatic irony (usually in the dialogue, and even in Mike’s song lyrics), but they’re seldom built to with a sense of causality, and their ripple effects are rarely felt. Vital decisions simply occur, rather than being arrived at through rigorous drama. The harrowing events that defined the brothers’ lives and gave rise to the idea of the “Von Erich curse” in the public consciousness exist largely as isolated moments geared towards shock value. Between this sense of skipping past major events, and Durkin omitting an entire brother to shorten the runtime, it can’t help but feel like the story he wants to tell is too big for one movie.

Sean Durkin may love wrestling too much to do this story justice. 

The Von Erich family share a moment.

Credit: A24

But Durkin is too thoughtful a director for these pacing issues to kneecap the film entirely. The Iron Claw has the look (and more importantly, the aesthetic) of an important drama with historical weight, and while this may feel like a backhanded compliment, it isn’t. On the family’s ranch, the Texas air always feels warm and thick, offering both a summery glow and sense of nostalgia. In the final act, this crescendos into a particularly moving moment of Kevin imagining a better life for his brothers. Whenever the four of them are together on screen, it feels like a Richard Linklater movie, bursting to life with a camaraderie that Durkin knows exactly how to capture with sincerity and sentimentality. When the brothers line dance at a family wedding — a sparsely attended one, as the Von Erichs are revered but not truly known — the camera focuses not on the brothers’ feet or their body movement but on their joyful expressions, tracking across their faces in the close-up. 

Durkin, a lifelong wrestling fan, cares deeply about these characters, but perhaps that’s a problem. The film often feels too close to its subject matter to give it an honest appraisal, and the camera frequently turns its gaze away from the story’s most painful moments. The blocking helps capture the family’s dynamic whenever it starts to shift — when jealousies fly, and when wrestling starts to get in the way rather than bringing them together — but in these scenes, Durkin pulls back, giving The Iron Claw a distant and observational quality when it should feel most intimate. Each time the movie avoids bearing witness to the brothers’ suffering and its impact on the family, it avoids the painful question of what led to each tragedy, and how Fritz (and perhaps even Doris) might have avoided such an outcome. The cumulative impact of this is a story that feels incomplete.

For a tale about the way tragic events can define people and families, The Iron Claw sadly ends up with too little interest in those tragedies or their emotional fallout. It’s far too eager to get to the end of the story and reach a light at the end of the tunnel. It spends too little time delving into darkness before skipping forward to catharsis. Its highs don’t feel earned, so the movie never truly soars. 

The Iron Claw opens in theaters Dec. 22.

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