Friday, January 5, 2024

The Iron Claw: Movie Review

A surprisingly compelling story about tragedy.
I will never understand wrestling. Like any good university student in the 2000s, I had a group of friends into WWE Raw and I tried to like it but just couldn’t. I do, however, like biopics and “based on a true story.” The Iron Claw is a dramatic look at an American tragedy way more than it even resembles a wrestling movie. I had never heard of the Von Erichs before watching this movie and I’m sure my viewing experience was completely different than someone who grew up idolizing them.   2023

Directed by: Sean Durkin

Screenplay by: Sean Durkin

Starring: Zac Efron, Harris Dickinson, Stanley Simons and Jeremy Allen White

Even knowing this film is a tragedy, the tragic elements are jaw-dropping. Very early on, while the boys are still teenagers, Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) the patriarch of the family, tells his sons, “My favorites in order are: Kerry, Kevin, David, and Mike.” The entire theater audience laughed. But let’s make this very clear: the father does not say that as a joke, writer-director Sean Durkin does not say that as a joke, it is fundamentally the very first sign that this movie is a tragedy, that the next 2-plus hours are going to contain the most tragic moments a family could possibly endure and that line is where it all starts for the movie (in real life, it started when the kids were born). The second sign of the tragedy soon follows when Kevin asks his mother (Maura Tierney) if he could talk to her, she says “No, that’s what your brothers are for.” He says what he wanted to say anyways, and she completely ignores him. These boys were raised by parents that absolutely hated them but honestly thought they were perfect Christian parents who loved their family.

The curse of the Von Erichs, as it’s known, is obviously not a real curse, it’s that their father and the boys can not tell the difference between jealousy and hatred, and tough love. It’s possible that Kevin Von Erich, the center of the film who is the primary vehicle for how the audience watches the tragedy unfold, still believes it’s a curse four decades later. He can’t bring himself to see his father as a villain.

It’s an impressive performance from star Zac Efron because Kevin is continuously grappling with the fact that maybe this isn’t the best way to live life, but he doesn’t know any other way. It’s easy to guess what they were taught: emotion is a weakness, put family above all else, and by the time he’s married and buried one brother he starts guessing that there has got to be a better way. Efron is showing vulnerability to get the audience completely connected to him while also portraying a stoic individual constantly trying to hide his pain and doubts.

Choosing Kevin as the point of view is especially interesting for those of us who don’t know the story. When Kevin meets his future wife he explains that he’s actually not the oldest brother, his older brother died when they were little. He does not know how he died. “All I know is that one day we were playing together and the next he just wasn’t there.” That death isn’t even considered part of the tragedy since it happened before they were famous.

All the tragedies that will eventually happen are telegraphed in advance. This serves two purposes: first, as an audience it’d be impossible to get through this movie without the blows being softened in this way, and second it shows how Kevin bears responsibility. Unlike his parents who view death as a necessary part of life, Kevin thinks maybe they didn’t have to die, maybe he could have saved them, but he was never given the tools to know how to help someone else.

Even for those of us who hate wrestling, The Iron Claw is still compelling. It manages the grief and emotion because of the strength of the lead character and Efron’s incredibly nuanced performance.