In the gripping tragicomedy “The Iron Claw,” Sean Durkin takes audiences on a rollercoaster ride through the tumultuous world of an American wrestling dynasty, where the most intense drama unfolds not in the ring but within the confines of family dynamics. The film offers a smooth, spooky, and often poignant account of the Von Erichs, a Texas wrestling family that rose to fame in the 1970s but faced gut-wrenching tragedies by the 1990s.
The narrative unfolds in 1963, with Jack Barton Adkisson, alias Fritz Von Erich, at the helm of the family’s pro wrestling legacy. A volcanic performance by Holt McCallany as Jack showcases the family’s rise, marked by flamboyant hair, impressive musculature, and signature moves like flying dropkicks and the notorious Iron Claw—a vice grip applied to an opponent’s head, sometimes drawing blood. The film introduces a cast of sons who inherited the legacy, becoming local sensations with TV syndication amplifying their fame. However, by the 1990s, the family was haunted by tragedy, hinting at a darker side behind the dazzling façade.
At the heart of “The Iron Claw” is the emotionally enigmatic Kevin, portrayed by a pumped-up Zac Efron. As the second favorite son, Kevin aspires to claim the top spot, serving as the film’s narrator and its attempt at an agent of change in the final stretch. Zac Efron portrayal captures the physicality required for wrestling but struggles to delve convincingly into the complexities of Kevin’s character.
The film weaves themes of masculinity, American enterprise, and exploitation, showcasing the Von Erich brothers‘ relationships with warmth and sweet intimacy. However, the narrative falters in engaging with the central theme of an abusive father, played by McCallany, whose relentless push for success brings out the horror in the family dynamics. The love the sons have for their father is portrayed as complicated, but the film falls short of exploring the contradictory, disastrous, and all-consuming nature of this love.
Durkin masterfully navigates the wrestling scenes, capturing the excitement and camaraderie among the brothers. The early scenes showcase the family’s roughhousing and fleeting physical perfection, blending beauty, heat, and melancholy. However, as the story unfolds into a tale of ambition, struggle, and defeat, the film loses some of its initial momentum.
“The Iron Claw” yearns for a happy ending even as the narrative delves into despair and pain. Durkin struggles to grapple with the iron claw of corrosive patriarchy, emotional repression, and misplaced ambition, opting for a narrower focus on one man’s transformation from true believer to heroic skeptic. The film, while energetic and engaging, ultimately falls short of fully embracing the complexities of its characters and the darker aspects of the Von Erich family saga.
Zac Efron‘s portrayal adds a physical dimension to Kevin’s character, but this depth is not there in his preparation and doesn’t fully make the emotional journey compelling. The Iron Claw, measuring the rise and fall of a dynasty in wrestling, is an impressive effort, but unwilling to dive as deeply into darkness or purgatory leaves audiences with higher expectations than this film fulfills.