The Iron Claw: a devastating story of real wrestling legend

Sean Durkin’s elegant portrait of the Von Erich wrestling family shows how hard-driven masculine legacy can both enrich and devastate a family.

The Iron Claw (2023)

At one point in Sean Durkin’s anguished, beautiful melodrama The Iron Claw, the patriarch of the Von Erich wrestling family sits at a table and matter-of-factly lists which sons are his favourites, adding that the pecking order is always subject to change. The film and its characters move on from it swiftly – in fact, it almost plays as a joking encouragement for these young men to reach their athletic goals, such is the light tone. But this fearsome competitive drive has deadly consequences, and The Iron Claw elegantly and expertly paints a portrait of how hard-driven masculine legacy can both enrich and devastate a family.

The story is one of real wrestling legend: the so-called ‘curse’ of the Von Erich wrestling family, four good-looking brothers and a former wrestler dad who pushed them to fame and fortune. But grief and loss would puncture their lives and relationships, eventually leaving only one of the brothers surviving in its wake. Even if you have some awareness of the rise and fall of 1980s wrestling superstars, and the impending, unthinkable tragedies that befell them, there is no way to brace yourself for the cascading horrors of the film, or for how effective its gentle visual language is.

Holt McCallany is brilliant as Fritz, the de facto dictator of the Von Erich clan, whose wrestling career in the 1950s is the backdrop to the ambitions he has for his four boys. There’s Kevin (Zac Efron), the most sensible and clearly the most serious about his plans to become heavyweight champ, judging by his sculpted physique (his bulging, fake-tanned bicep is caught in focus very early in the film, the shot lingering just long enough to make its point). Then there’s Kerry (a quietly sullen Jeremy Allen White), aspiring Olympian and party boy, who comes home to the ranch to join the family business. There’s David, Kevin’s best friend, thinner and less physically threatening but great ‘on the mic’, talking in promos and egging on the crowd – he’s animated by a lovable, fringe-jacketed Harris Dickinson with an airy attitude, and provides a certain sprightly sense of mischief in contrast to the self-seriousness of his brothers Kevin and Kerry. Finally, there’s Michael (Stanley Simons), the baby of the bunch, more interested in becoming a rock ’n’ roll star than a wrestling one; constantly harassed by his father for his relative lack of strength and agility, he is shy and sorely aware of his inability to fill his brothers’ shoes. These boys eat, drink, wash, pray, fight and, most importantly, wrestle together: they are totally enmeshed.

Harris Dickinson as David Von Erich in The Iron Claw (2023)

Durkin and director of photographer Mátyás Erdély (also his DP on The Nest, 2020) film the brothers’ relationship with care and tenderness, capturing their closeness through the sun-dappled Texan summers of the early 1980s: radio rock playing, kegs of beer at a tailgate party, and cut-off denim for tanned boys and girls alike, with nary an un-cowboy-booted foot to be seen. In a charming single tracking shot through a parking lot at one of the Von Erichs’ wrestling shows, a young woman (Lily James) comes to ask for an autograph, the camera language making it clear that this is the romance of Kevin’s life. As tragedies mount, Durkin handles the shifts in tone through subtle but effective use of light and space. After the loss of one brother to a sudden health problem, the bright prettiness of the film’s Texan summers looks flat and denatured, rooms drawing smaller with gloom and shadow.

Efron’s already widely praised central performance strikes a balance between innocence and experience, hulking physicality and deep inner turmoil. He is the oldest brother (though only because his family lost their firstborn as a boy, prefacing the tragic series of events to come), and he is frequently devastating in this part. In more than one sequence in the final half hour, his facial expressions have the power to floor the viewer: a pool of unwept tears in his eyes and a crease in his brow. His Kevin is a person left so emptied out by loss that each incident seems to be changing him on a cellular level in front of your eyes. Few films leave such a palpable ache, and it figures its masculine melodrama with such tenderness. Grief is a love enduring – and this is a film that will endure.

► The Iron Claw is in UK cinemas from 9 February.