The Iron Claw Review: Zac Efron Gets Body Slammed By Tragedies In A24’s Moving Pro Wrestling Biopic

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Written By Maya Cantina

Movies about pro wrestling are few and extremely far between, with only a handful of examples immediately coming to mind, such as The Wrestler, Peanut Butter Falcon and… Ready to Rumble. And at its core, however, Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw isn’t really a movie about the ins and outs of the business, even with all the time spent watching Zac Efron’s Kevin Von Erich and other characters working out and talking about earning championship belts. This is a story about a family that was pushed into dedicating itself to achieving the American Dream, only to suffer from one nightmare after another – and it’s a piledriver to the heart. 

The Iron Claw

(Image credit: A24)

Release Date: December 22, 2023
Directed By: Sean Durkin
Written By: Sean Durkin
Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Stanley Simons, Lily James, Maura Tierney, and Holt McCallany
Rating: R,  for language, suicide, some sexuality and drug use
Runtime: 130 minutes

For decades, the Von Erich family has been one of the most lauded and celebrated families within the world of wrestling. This is thanks in part to patriarch Fritz (born Jack Adkisson) turning World Class Championship Wrestling into a popular promotion, as well as the vast amounts of athleticism and charisma that his sons brought to the ring. But The Iron Claw probably wouldn’t exist if the Von Erichs’ success was universal and uncontested, and for all the innate chemistry the brothers had when they were together, it couldn’t save anyone from their respective demons.

Thankfully, Sean Durkin’s script and finished film aren’t ever weighed down by exploiting the family’s harrowing experiences, disappointments and deaths, as The Iron Claw is just as focused on giving audiences a measured look at imbalanced family dynamics, cautionary parenting, and how dangerous climbing the ladder to success can be. (Especially in the years before ladder matches were a go-to wrestling gimmick.)

The Iron Claw is a movie about extremely emotional things happening to emotionally stunted people. 

As Fritz and Doris “Dottie” Von Erich, stars Holt McCallany and Maura Tierney are led in life by their religious beliefs, which play a large role in how they parent their children. As was the case in real life, the family’s first son, Jack Jr., suffered an accidental death at just six years old, which would later become the inciting factor for rumors about the “Von Erich” curse that wrestling fans romanticized as the reason behind the family’s woes. 

In some ways, the domineering and demanding Fritz is my biggest issue with The Iron Claw, and not necessarily because it’s his overt obsession with pro wrestling accolades that causes just about all of the family rifts. With props given to Holt McCallany, Fritz is usually spouting awkward exposition, or he’s parroting his own “bring the belt home” ideals. I suppose his arc can be seen as insightful, in that there’s a question of whether he truly still believes in his own methods by the time everything was shattered, or whether they became mental chains he couldn’t break free of. 

That can be argued, but there’s no denying the fact that Fritz and Doris’ tight-lipped and hitched-britches parenting has a huge effect on their close-knit children in the film, in that many are seemingly unable to talk about their emotions and feelings in ways that may have led to mental catharsis and equilibrium as opposed to falling into substance abuse and self-harm. 

Director Sean Durkin sidesteps melodrama and biopic tropes to tell the Von Erichs’ story, and delivers some great wrestling scenes.

In the same way that the Von Erich family largely avoided waxing psychological or divulging in their inner turmoil, Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw doesn’t force audiences to wallow in gloom and sorrow, as it takes an almost refreshing approach to parsing out the various tragedies. I won’t delve into the specifics on that front, even though all the real events are out there to research, so as not to spoil the filmmaker’s vision.

Going along that (hyper-muscular) vein, though, Durkin gets all the credit in the world for avoiding the majority of the tropes and patterns that turn biopics like this into maudlin trauma-porn. Zac Efron’s boyish charm and aw-shucks performance as Kevin Von Erich help that along as well. The character understandably gets frustrated when Fritz opts to give others better in-ring opportunities, and he is heartbroken when awful things happen to those around him – but the movie doesn’t overplay the emotions or overtly wrench sympathy out of viewers. 

To cycle back to the squared circle of it all, the filmmaker clearly cares as much about The Iron Claw’s wrestling scenes as anything else, and all the sequences featuring Kevin, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons) in the ring are truly riveting – while also showing off just how much training the actors went through. Fans of ‘80s and ‘90s pro wrestling will delight in some of the matches, names, and footage on display, with Aaron Dean Eisenberg’s Ric Flair serving as the most prominently utilized sports-entertainment legend outside of the Von Erich clan.

The kinetic chemistry between Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White and the rest of the cast makes the inevitable tragedies hit that much harder.

Even if all the wrestling and dramatic turmoil was completely removed from The Iron Claw, the film would still be worthy of watching for all the brotherly love on display. Given the film’s expanded timeline coupled with Kevin’s romantic relationship with girlfriend-turned-wife Pam (Lily James), there necessarily aren’t enough scenes of like-minded camaraderie between the boys, which just makes all the despair that much more palpable by the time the tragedies start building up.

Each of the stars deliver the goods here, anchored by what could end up being Zac Efron’s career-best performance, as it plays to his strengths rather than asking him to step completely outside of his comfort zone. (Yes, his massive physique can be a bit of a distraction, but as a “muscles can’t buy success” metaphor, it works.) Jeremy Allen White somewhat mirrors his work on The Bear by going from cool and calculated to a manic wreck. 

UK actor Harris Dickinson exudes Southern charm as David, a more naturally gifted athlete harboring guilt for getting bigger opportunities than Kevin. As Mike, Australian Stanley Simons brings just the right amount of passive energy to the Von Erich family, harboring the most reluctance to follow in the family’s wrestling boot-steps. 

While Pam obviously isn’t one of the boys, as it were, Lily James does her drawling best with a character whose lines and scenes are largely meant to draw information and reactions out of Kevin. On the opposite end of the warmth spectrum, Maura Tierney’s prim and stoic performance brings so much to each scene with Doris, who usually has the least to do in them, and the actress shines in one of the film’s most gutting moments. Both easily wade through all the testosterone surrounding them. 

Like the dichotomy of the sport’s kayfabe, The Iron Claw is raw and reserved, meditative and violent, despairing and hopeful. It’s the biopic for wrestling fans who don’t like biopics, and the wrestling movie for biopic fans who don’t like wrestling. And for those who happen to enjoy both, there’s nothing better. 

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