THE IRON CLAW Review: An Equally Brutal and Beautiful True Tale of Resilience

Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney and Lily James star in director Sean Durkin's new drama, inspired by a true story.

Contributing Writer; Chicago, IL (@anotherKyleL)
THE IRON CLAW Review: An Equally Brutal and Beautiful True Tale of Resilience

The Iron Claw establishes itself as an epic in its first seconds with a black and white image of a spotlit wrestling ring in an empty arena before showing the power and the fury of Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) in slow motion as he stomps an opponent into submission.

There’s a sense of grandeur that maintains itself throughout the black and white prologue in which Fritz meet his wife and children outside, and gets in some trouble with his spouse for leasing a Cadillac while they’re living out of a trailer. But Fritz has dreams, and he believes if he wants to be a star, he has to live like a star.

Years later, it’s 1979 and the Von Erichs live in a beautiful ranch house in Denton, Texas. Sons Kevin (Zac Efron) and David (Harris Dickinson) train for their wrestling careers, while youngest brother Mike (Stanley Simons) spends his time playing music and thinking about better ways to film his brothers’ fights. Writer/director Sean Durkin wastes no time specifying the point-of-view character by having Kevin explain the “Von Erich curse” to viewers in voiceover.

The rumored curse follows the name “Von Erich,” a name Fritz took from an old relative whose lineage was filled with tragedy. But Kevin doesn’t pay much mind to that, instead focusing on his father’s philosophy that if you’re the strongest and fight the hardest, you can make your life whatever you want it to be.

It's a philosophy that failed Fritz himself who, while successful, never brought home the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Championship Title and has now passed, or rather forces, that dream onto his children. Fritz’s severity with his children, going so far as to openly admit he has ranked favorites, the unwillingness of matriarch Doris (Maura Tierney) to emotionally engage with her sons, and the introduction of the curse weigh heavily on the first half of the film, yet there’s a real sense of joy as well. 

Kevin wins a belt and meets the pretty, charming, and very forward Pam (Lily James). David, Kevin, and Mike spend time together getting burgers, and driving around listening to music. Even when brother Kerry’s (Jeremy Allen White) Olympic aspirations are dashed by the United States’ decision to boycott the 1980 games in Moscow, things remain upbeat as he joins his brothers in the ring.

One sequence in particular stands out. When the brothers and Pam sneak Mike out to play a show with his band, Mike sings the original song “Live That Way Forever” (a serious contender for the Oscar by Laurel Sprengelmeyer aka Little Scream and score composer Richard Reed Parry) and it feels like an appreciation for the perfection of their lives in that moment. It’s infectiously joyful, and makes the imminent tragedy all the more devastating.

As anyone familiar with the family’s story knows, tragedy does strike, repeatedly. So much so that Durkin removes brother Chris, who died by suicide, entirely from of the film because it might be too much otherwise. It’s still almost too much, but the film never feels like a bad beatdown for its audience, largely because Durkin places us so firmly in Kevin’s point of view.

It's a point of view that becomes more and more limited as the film goes on. Early on, we see Kevin and his brothers together often, and their fights feel chaotically immediate as Durkin places the audience in the ring with bodies slamming into one another.

As their careers grow, though, the brothers become isolated. Kevin isn’t present for the deaths of one of his brothers in Japan. Kevin and the audience only glimpse the NWA World Heavyweight Championship Title-winning fight of another brother on TV (using the real footage from the fight on the in-film television).

That perspective makes The Iron Claw a truly breathtaking experience. Durkin and Efron ensure that the audience is with Kevin every step of the way, even when he’s held at arm's length from the events befalling his family.

That identification never lessens the pain, but makes it so specifically felt that it’s impossible for it to feel contrived or cloying. It’s also what makes the film’s ending feel somehow triumphant. The Iron Claw is hardly a feel good film, but by the end, it feels almost joyous again as it acknowledges the pain and re-embraces the love that made the pain so great.

The film opens December 22, only in movie theaters, via A24 Films. Visit the official site for more information

Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
Harris DickinsonJeremy Allen WhiteLily JamesMaura TierneySean DurkinZac Efron

Around the Internet