The Iron Claw: A Wrestling Dynasty Gets It's Flowers [Review]

Considering its foothold in American pop culture, it’s somewhat surprising that there have been so few movies about pro wrestling. In fact, over the last 15 years, the only real notable narrative films on the subject are Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 drama “The Wrestler” and the solid, but already forgotten 2018 dramedy “Fighting With My Family.” The last 12 months have been something of a sea change, comparably, with Roger Ross Williams’ superb “Cassandro” about famed exótico lucha libre wrestler Saúl Armendáriz and now, Sean Durkin’s “The Iron Claw,” a spotlight on the Von Erichs, one of the most respected and snakebit families in the sport. Or, frankly, any sport.

READ MORE: “Priscilla” Review: Sofia Coppola’s understated biopic lets us draw our own conclusions [Venice]

Mostly set in the Dallas-Fort Worth area beginning in the early 1980s, the movie sets up a familiar sports family dynamic. The patriarch of the clan, Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) wants his sons to follow in his footsteps to reach the heights of stardom he feels he was personally denied in his chosen sport (in this case, as a pro wrestler). He runs his own wrestling promotion, World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), which makes a name for itself after matches are broadcast on a local Dallas television station. WCCW and the Von Erich’s become so popular they are recognizable celebrities in Dallas. And, like many passionate overachievers, Fritz never truly understands how good he has it.

At first, Frotz believes his best shot at the big time is his oldest surviving son, the athletic and barefooted Kevin (Zac Efron). Soon, his favoritism shifts to the slightly younger David (Harris Dickenson) who has a creativity on the microphone (a big part of the game) that his older brother simply struggles with. There is also Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), who was on track to compete in the shotput at the 1980 Olympics until the United States boycotts the Moscow games. Frustrated that his medal window is likely over, he takes his father’s advice to transition to pro wrestling, and, at one point, all three brothers compete as an increasingly popular tag team. There is also Mike (relative newcomer Stanley Simons), the artistic soul in the family who would rather play guitar in his friend’s rock band than jump into the ring (you know he won’t be able to say no to his father from the moment he appears on screen).

The Iron Claw,

If the long legacy of the Von Erich Family intrigues you and you don’t mind spoilers, you can easily discover their history with a simple internet search. For the most part, it is a massively tragic one. So much so, that Durkin, who both directed and wrote the screenplay, omits the youngest brother of the family, Chris, who never came close to his brother’s successes in the ring. History tells us his fate was also not a happy one, and it might be hard for any audience to believe his journey in the context of what happens to his other brothers. It’s already difficult for anyone to believe the real-life events that occur on screen without him.

As Kerry becomes the most successful son and the apple of his father’s eye (he was a featured star for the World Wrestling Federation, now known as WWE, between 1990-1992) Kevin fades to the background, attempting to help his father keep their WCCW promotion afloat. He also juggles raising his kids with a wife, Pam (Lily James), who has a career of her own. But that conflict is minuscule compared to the legacy of the Von Enrichs as a whole.

It’s probably smarter to insinuate no more about where this wrestling family ends up. Somehow though, Durkin finds a cumulative way to find hope in Kerry’s narrative and own burgeoning family. All the actors are superb, but Durkin is especially lucky to have Efron, who gives perhaps the finest performance of his career not just in the ring, but his portrayal of a man struggling to overcome his grief. Durkin has never been a filmmaker to tug at the heartstrings in his previous endeavors. He does so here, though, with classy and effective restraint.

The movie has its issues, however. Despite McCallany’s best efforts Fritz often feels one-note and the depiction of the business side of the family is often confusing (Maura Tierney gives the matriarch of the family, Doris Von Erich, a more compelling portrait thankfully). The wrestling though? The action in the ring? Durkin’s direction of those classic matches? Thanks to some incredible wrestlers, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, production designer James Price, and Durkin’s vision, It often looks more “real” than the WWE or professional wrestling you see on television today. And for the rare wrestling movie, that’s a pretty impressive achievement in and of itself. [B-]

“The Iron Claw” opens on December 22 nationwide.

*Please note: An unfinished version of this review was published prematurely.*