The opening two scenes of The Iron Claw set the tone for the film, both literally and symbolically. It features Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), the patriarch who initiated it all, in his heyday, inside the ring. He beats his opponent to the ground and executes his signature move, ‘the iron claw,’ he takes his mammoth hand and clamps it onto his opponent’s head, squeezing hard until they can’t endure it any longer. Even after the bell rings, he maintains a vice grip on his opponent, inflicting just a little more pain.
Filmed in black and white with a subtle Raging Bull vibe, this scene, followed by the next in a car park where he’s met by his wife and two young children, lays the groundwork for the film. As he embraces his two young boys, he’s clearly a loving family man. However, just as his ‘iron claw’ rendered his opponents defeated, he had just as strong a grip on his family, ruling them with an iron fist. His relentless pressure on his boys to succeed had a lasting effect on them.
The film then jumps to 1979, where we meet the Von Erich sons, and the central figure is Zac Efron’s Kevin Von Erich. Kevin is a rising star on the wrestling scene, holding a regional title and aspiring to be the heavyweight champion of the world. We’re introduced to him as he hauls himself out of bed and here we witness Efron’s remarkable body transformation; he’s carrying some serious bulk, and it must have taken an incredible commitment from him.
As well as being Efron’s biggest physical transformation The Iron Claw is also his greatest acting performance. He portrays Kevin with incredible authenticity and vulnerability, a challenging task considering he’s depicting a real person who endured significant grief. When combining his dedication to achieving Kevin’s aesthetic, the athleticism he demonstrated in the wrestling scenes, and his powerful acting performance, it stands as a career-best achievement, shamefully overlooked by The Academy.
The Von Erich brothers believe they suffer from the ‘Von Erich Curse,’ a curse that led to multiple tragedies over generations of their family. It started decades before with the death of the oldest son who died as a child, and it plays out in its own way with each brother. In reality, the ‘curse’ is Fritz’s demented need for one of his sons to become a champion and his utter disregard for what they want in life.
Kevin’s brothers share the ring with him at various stages and the on-screen brotherly bond is strong; they’re united against their father’s tyrannical parenting and support each other with warmth. David (Harris Dickinson) is the natural showman, witty and a natural on camera. Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) is a former Olympic-qualifying athlete who joins them in the ring after being unable to go to the Olympics. Mike (Stanley Simons) is the youngest; he’s quiet-natured and a budding musician. Collectively, they perfectly capture a brotherly bond, and all of them put in exceptional performances with the little time they had.
But this is Zac Efron’s film; he plays Kevin with incredible depth and emotion. After years of portraying teen heartthrobs, he has grown into a fantastic dramatic actor. His dedication physically is one of the most impressive I’ve seen in decades, probably since Christian Bale in The Machinist, has somebody so dramatically put their body on the line for their art.
The women in the film are largely underwritten; both Maura Tierney and Lily James do well with the little they have. Tierney’s Doris Von Erich is the boys’ mother, and she mostly comes across as cold. When Kevin asks her to intervene when their father’s pressure becomes too much, she dismisses him. Considering the pain she would have experienced, we don’t see much of it. James plays Pam, Kevin’s wife and mother to his children; she’s mostly seen as Kevin’s rock, patient, kind, and understanding.
Written and directed by Sean Durkin, it’s a big step up in scale and ambition for the director. Alongside cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, they’ve created a thought-provoking film with a haunting atmosphere.
The film is about emotional burden, blame, and the price the family pays for success in the wrestling industry. It’s all driven by a hyper-aggressive patriarch’s desire for status, even at the cost of his sons’ emotional and physical well-being. It’s a sad, emotionally haunting, and deeply tragic story.
The Iron Claw will be released in UK cinemas February 9.