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Release Date: 12/22/23 [Cinemas]
Genre: Biography. Drama. Sport.

Studio: A24. 

"The true story of the inseparable Von Erich brothers, who made history in the intensely competitive world of professional wrestling in the early 1980s." 


Roman Reigns. John Cena. “The Rock”.


These are the names and faces we think about when we talk about wrestling today. However, those “stars” are only reaping the blockbuster benefits of the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice of so many before them. Case in point: the Von Erich clan. No injury in the ring could match the pain that this family endured outside of it. But unless you were around to witness their unbelievable true story in real time, you likely haven’t heard of them…until now. In A24’s latest film, The Iron Claw, director Sean Durkin finally gives the Von Erichs the attention they deserve. In the process he makes a great case for why they might be the most important family to ever associate with the sport too.


The film opens with a flashback. In beautiful Black and White, the audience sees a wrestler dominating his opponent in the ring and ultimately winning. That man, as we come to find out, is Fritz Von Erich, the family’s patriarch. After the show, he meets his pregnant wife, Doris, along with his two oldest sons outside, and surprises them with a brand new car. As the audience can plainly tell from the mobile home attached to the car - and Doris’ expression - the family does not have the money to keep it. But Fritz assures her that it’s all a part of the American Dream, that he shouldn’t deny himself what he can’t afford. Instead, he believes he should spend money as a way of manifesting more good fortune. The conversation ends there, but, just as Fritz prophesied, the good fortune does flow the family’s way. 


The film then fast forwards to its present, the early 1980s. Fritz, having retired from wrestling, owns a massive estate. He pays for it by managing local shows at his personal arena and having his oldest son Kevin headline matches with some other up-and-coming wrestlers. At this stage in the Von Erichs’ life, they have moderate success with these shows and are considered somewhat local celebrities. However, that still does not satisfy Fritz. He wants more, so he pushes his family to do more too. Soon, Kevin isn’t the only son in the ring. He’s joined by the next-oldest brothers, David and Kerry. While the success continues for a few years, Fritz’s attempt to create a lasting legacy eventually snowballs into a series of immense tragedies, all of which force the family into the limelight for all the wrong reasons. 


Like so many autobiographical adaptations, there are some details from real life that are omitted or amplified for the sake of making the story more cinematic. For fans of the family, one of the most obvious changes here is that the family has 5 sons instead of 6. Even that change is understandable though because from the beginning it’s clear that Durkin’s goal is not to bask in a body count. Having grown up as a fan of Von Erichs himself, his main goal as both writer and director is to show us the human side of these characters that not even he had access to. It’s a wild contrast at times considering how the Von Erich men purposely work to chisel their bodies to look like Greek gods. But it’s a contrast that works because, as we slowly see, physical muscles do not equate to emotional strength. There are some weights that not even the family’s toughest members have the will to lift. 


Make no mistake, Durkin captures the family’s lighter side too. There are so many wonderful moments where we see the chemistry and the camaraderie the Von Erichs shared, despite also being each other’s biggest competitors. There’s a moment in the film where, just as the family gets the attention of the World Wrestling Federation, Fritz tells the boys that David is going to be given the chance at the title. This, after Kevin has worked the longest and hardest in the ring, Kerry has given up his shot at the Olympics, and David has just seemingly started to wrestle. As heartbreaking as the news is for the other brothers, they are still happy for David. Unlike Fritz, who wants a win at any cost, they are just happy to share the stage.


As compassionate as Durkin’s writing and direction are, the performances are what truly make the film. While the film is initially framed from the perspective of Fritz, played by an intense Holt McCallany, most of the story is actually told from the perspective of Kevin Von Erich. 


Zac Efron is absolutely unrecognizable in the role, and in the best way possible. Although he plays the largest of the Von Erich clan, he is a gentle giant. Not only is he harmless outside of the ring, but he is not confrontational at all. We see this as he struggles to engage with the audience during matches, he doesn’t know how to talk to women, and he bottles up all of his emotions against his father. Seeing Efron inhabit other, more confident roles over the course of his career, it’s a refreshing (and welcome) change of pace to watch him get lost emotionally as well as physically. While he’s never been a stranger to physical fitness, to actually see him take that physicality to a new extreme for this role not only proves how far he’s come as an actor. It places him in the same league as other extremely committed actors such as Christian Bale and Daniel Day-Lewis.


Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson are also terrific as Kerry and David Von Erich respectively. For the film’s entire first act they, alongside Efron, are the heart. It really does feel like you’re watching brothers interact. Similar to Efron’s Kevin, White’s Kerry spends a lot of the film internalizing his emotion. But the way in which he ultimately releases it, in his final scene, is so beautiful and devastating that it’s sure to make the audience weep. And despite being the brother with the least amount of screentime, Dickinson’s likability leaves such a lasting impression that you can’t help but miss David too when he’s gone.


Aside from McCallany’s complex turn as the flawed father of the clan, Maura Tierney delivers an excellent performance as the family’s muted matriarch. She is joined by Lily James, who shines as Kevin’s love interest. And the cast is rounded out by relative newcomer Stanley Simons, who will absolutely break your heart as the youngest (and most burdened) Von Erich brother, Mike. Despite varying degrees of screentime, it’s impossible to forget any performance, which makes this one of the year’s best ensembles easily. And that’s on top of simply being one of the year’s best films.

Like the wrestling move the film is named after, The Iron Claw will grip you into submission. You will laugh. You will cry. You’ll even leave manifesting an Oscar-nominated Zac Efron. But nothing will prepare you for its sobering reality. Fritz Von Erich was so obsessed with good fortune that he forced his family to chase it. Despite the pain and suffering that followed, the biggest tragedy by far was how he always failed to see that life was unlike wrestling. Although the line is consistently blurred between reality and fiction in the latter, at least you know what to expect. Someone always leaves the ring with a belt and title. In life, however, no one gets out alive. The only measurable reward is the amount of people cheering you on.


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