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‘The Iron Claw’ Will Put You in an Emotional Headlock

Sean Durkin’s film about the famed Von Erich wrestling dynasty is a sports movie with genuine heft—a story about what happens when fate takes a heel turn

A24/Ringer illustration

Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw begins in the late 1970s, at a time when professional wrestling’s dramaturgy was still neatly divided between good guys and bad guys. Or, in the case of the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling, white hats and black hats—some of them 10-gallon, befitting a promotion that doubles down on Old West tropes to distinguish itself from other territorial organizations. In those days, the greatest thing a grappler could be was a local hero, protecting his home turf from invaders; in the confines of the barn-like Dallas Sportatorium, where getting a ringside seat often meant becoming part of the action, the line between fan and family member was gloriously blurred.

As an evocation of a bygone era, The Iron Claw is wonderfully accomplished, at once romantic and abject; the smoky, roving cinematography by Hungarian virtuoso Mátyás Erdély has a time-machine quality, while James Price’s production design precisely recreates the gaudy, tawdry textures of ring robes and dressing-room floors alike. Between its reams of gritty industry history and impressively choreographed ring sequences, it’s a movie best appreciated by scholars and superfans, and yet the grip suggested by its title is universal. It’s a sports movie with genuine existential heft—a story about what happens when fate takes a heel turn.

Certainly, the world of wrestling doesn’t lack for hard-luck stories or cautionary tales. Self-destruction and collateral damage have run rampant over the industry, and for every superstar like the Rock who emerges with their body, brain, and reputation unscathed, there are a dozen icons who couldn’t rise to meet their final bell, from the Ultimate Warrior to Randy Savage to Chris Benoit. In theory, the Texas-born Von Erich brothers should have avoided the dark side of the ring: they arrived bathed in spotlight, a tribe of shaggy babyfaces bred like pedigreed golden retrievers by their hard-edged, dynasty-minded promoter father. The boys were raised in public between the ropes, and flashed real brilliance before succumbing, one after another, to the physical and psychological pressures of their family business; in the space of just over a decade, three—and potentially four—of the Von Erichs would die by some form of self-harm.

The Squared Circle by The Ringer’s own David Shoemaker—a history of wrestling told from the graveyard shift—includes testimony that the litany of woe that eventually befell paterfamilias Fritz Von Erich (formerly known as Jack Adkisson) was the result of a hex placed by a Holocaust survivor. The fan was offended that an American wrestler would adopt a quasi-Nazi persona to generate heat, and cursed him accordingly. This story is apocryphal, of course, but even in its less tasteless iterations, the Von Erich legacy is so tragic that it defies belief, to the point that Durkin’s script actually omits one casualty for purposes of dramatic compression. “You could make nine hours of The Godfather on this family,” Durkin told Entertainment Weekly when asked why he didn’t include the late Chris Von Erich, who took his own life in 1991 at the age of 21, in his narrative. “I didn’t have that opportunity, so I had to make choices of what could fit in a movie.” If there’s something ruthless about this statement, in a way it clarifies both the impossible cruelty of the story and Durkin’s achievement, which lies in forsaking simple, base exploitation for complex empathy.

That sense of basic, even-handed humanity begins with the film’s depiction of Fritz, who, as acted by Mindhunter’s always-stellar Holt McCallany, comes off less as a domineering monster than a flawed, driven visionary—less heartless than hapless in his attempt to conquer his little corner of the sport. An accomplished student of another old-school icon—Stu Hart, father of Bret and Owen and, in his conflation of pedagogy and suffering, nobody’s idea of Dad of the Year—Adkisson came up when wrestling’s “fakery” was a verboten topic; it was also a contradiction in terms, since the scripted outcomes of the matches barely belied the very real torture experienced by its participants. Case in point: After taking on the villainous persona of Fritz, Adkisson deployed his signature Iron Claw maneuver, which was on one level ridiculous—a sort of super-powered noogie—but frequently drew blood all the same.

In WCCW, Fritz gradually aged from an in-ring threat into a bravura master of ceremonies, dropping the Germanic inflection entirely and pushing his sons as the promotion’s flashiest good guys. He also picked fights on syndicated television with other regional promoters, designed to get across two ideas, one more contentious than the other. The first was that Von Erichs were two-fisted local heroes protecting their home promotion’s honor; the second was that he and his family were underdogs in a moment when, a few time zones over in the east, Vince McMahon was about to take wrestling national, eradicating decades of territorial booking under the banner of a family-friendly and corporate-backed monopoly.

The threat posed by the then-nascent WWF pressurizes The Iron Claw—and McCallany’s formidable, moving interpretation of Fritz Von Erich—in ways that will be more easily perceived by wrestling fans: McMahon’s power play prods the proud lifer’s encroaching sense of obsolescence, and contextualizes the way he pushes his boys to test their limits and plays them off of each other, whether in the kitchen, on the farm, or in the ring. The more universal entry point, though, is Zac Efron’s sensitive, physically eloquent acting as Kevin Von Erich, the family’s second-oldest son and most accomplished ring general. Kevin is also the only one with any memory of his late brother Jack, who died in an accident at the age of 6. “It was like one day, I didn’t have a brother anymore,” he tells Pam (Lily James), a fan whose post-match attempt to seduce the local golden boy gets waylaid by deeper and more protective feelings. Even on their first date, Kevin confides his fears of some terrible hereditary destiny, and while he has no idea how bad it’s going to get, Efron, who’s got a deeper bag as an actor than his résumé suggests, evinces just the right mix of superstitious dread and tremulous self-pity. He’s a young man haunted before his time.

It’s the bristling but tender tension between McCallany’s pushy patriarch—a man with a steadfast belief in the idea that the ends justify the means—and Efron’s dutiful but self-doubting apprentice that drives The Iron Claw’s first act. This section peaks during a suspenseful and superbly re-created encounter between Kevin and visiting world champ Harley Race (Kevin Anton), whose rub could give the Von Erichs a taste of the national spotlight. Race, who was one of wrestling’s legit tough guys, is depicted here as a brooding, malevolent force of nature who decides to teach the up-and-coming Kevin a lesson, albeit with unexpected consequences. Instead of teaching the kid some hard truths about what it takes to be the champ (even within the ritualized rules of kayfabe), his systematic demolition, culminating in a paralyzing suplex on the concrete floor, forces Fritz to shift his focus—and tough-love tactics—to Kevin’s younger brother David (Harris Dickinson), who’s even greener in the ring but better on the microphone—and ambitious enough to chase the carrot being dangled in front of his eyes.

This same, seriocomic pattern of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately favoritism gives The Iron Claw its rhythm: “The rankings can always change,” Fritz tells his boys over breakfast, maybe joking, maybe not, always moving the goalposts for his affection. Things get complicated even further by the return of prospective Olympian Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), whose gold-medal aspirations as a discus thrower are exploded by America’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow games. Looking for a new gig, Kerry decides to join WCCW, where, despite his lack of training, his physique and charisma make him a natural. His instant successes pushes sensitive, musically-inclined Michael (Stanley Simons), whose room is adorned with rock magazines rather than wrestling posters, even further down the pecking order—a spot to which he seems resigned.

The upshot of all this intrigue is a potentially toxic cocktail of testosterone and competitive juices, but Durkin takes his time to let it boil over. Instead, the scenes portraying the brothers at play—including a clandestine group outing to a college kegger that finds Mike’s band playing to an appreciative group of undergrads—are the loosest and warmest of the director’s career. Durkin, who scored a creepy coup with his cult-themed debut Martha Marcy May Marlene, is a gifted director, but he’s not exactly known for a light touch: his previous dysfunctional family melodrama The Nest literally featured a character digging up and kicking a dead horse. Durkin loves slow-burn anxiety, and yet parts of The Iron Claw feel like a genuine “Dudes Rock” reverie. Part of the charm resides in the interplay between the actors, whose credible fraternal resemblance and rapport is somehow amplified—and made almost humorously fetishistic—by their prime-cut bodies. They’re like caricatures of all-American adolescence, as if Ma and Pa Kent had rescued an entire litter of Kryptonians from that cornfield. But the relative sanity and sweetness of the family scenes also clarifies the bottomless sadness of the Von Erich story, which is not one about men suffering from an absence of love, but losing their grip on themselves even while it’s in abundance.

Obviously, with material like this, there’s potential for mawkishness, and The Iron Claw isn’t afraid to lean into big, soggy emotions; the most morose scenes are reserved for White, who does a finely detailed impersonation of the man who briefly achieved fame in the WWF working for McMahon as the Texas Tornado, and who might have been the next Hulk Hogan had he kept a lid on his various addictions. Kerry’s descent into self-harm (including a motorcycle accident that cost him his foot) was keyed by his reaction to the Curse; in Bret Hart’s autobiography, there’s a chilling passage where Hart remembers Kerry telling him that he missed his late brothers and wanted to join them. That anecdote may be the inspiration for the ethereal, Malickian imagery that Durkin deploys in the aftermath of White’s departure from the narrative—a big swing that misses. There’s considerably more impact in a quieter bit of staging a little later on, where Kevin, realizing he’s no longer anyone’s brother, clings to his young sons in search of lost camaraderie. It may be that by finally torquing a story about unimaginable loss into that of a mind who finds himself, The Iron Claw errs on the side of uplift. But as acted by Efron, the catharsis feels earned—the euphoric feeling of having broken out of a deathlock, even if only momentarily.