The Iron Claw review: Wrestling drama sets up far more than it pays off
While the performances are good and the soundtrack evocative, the scriptwriting in Sean Durkin's film is too heavy-handed.
This true-life drama explores the legacy of an American wrestling dynasty.
It’s the third film from Canadian-American writer/director Sean Durkin, after 2011’s excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene and 2020’s lesser-known The Nest, and promises much in the way of muscle-bound tragedy.
Originally from Texas, the Von Erich family became regional sporting heroes, but a series of untimely deaths led to the rumour they were cursed.
The Iron Claw refers to their signature wrestling move, but also suggests those at the mercy of a higher power.
The film begins in Raging Bull territory, as patriarch Jack 'Fritz' Von Erich (Holt McCallany) loses a 1967 National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Championship match in crisp black and white.
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Outside the arena, we meet his long-suffering wife Doris (Maura Tierney) and two sons. "I will be the NWA world champion and nothing will hurt us again!" he swears.
Cut to 1979, and Kevin (Zac Efron), the oldest surviving Von Erich son (his brother Jack drowned aged six), pumps iron in their Texas ranch.
Heading down to breakfast, he passes a crucifix on the wall and his dad’s gun cabinet.
"Ever since I was a child people said my family was cursed," he tells us in voiceover. "Mum tried to protect us with God, pop tried to protect us with wrestling. He said if we were the toughest, the strongest, the most successful, nothing could ever hurt us."
But repeating it doesn’t make it true. Kevin is now the NWA star, with Jack his demanding coach, and his other brothers – Olympic hammer hopeful Kerry (The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White); charismatic David (Triangle of Sadness’s Harris Dickinson) and music-loving Mike (Stanley Simmons) – snapping at his heels.
After listing the order of his favourite sons, Jack proclaims, "The rankings can always change!" And change they do.
When Kevin fails to become world champion, David is next up, and so on. Jack is the kind of man who has points to score against the world but ends up scoring them against his own family. McCallany makes a strong impression, even if the role feels a touch underwritten.
While wrestling doesn’t hold quite the same mystique outside America, Durkin evokes the heady atmosphere of the matches so well you can almost smell the cigarette smoke.
He doesn’t shy away from the sport’s contradictions, either. Though largely an act, it takes great personal toll on its participants – something explored in more detail in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Witness poor Kevin shivering in pain on the concrete floor as victory, however rehearsed, eludes him.
Elsewhere, the performances are good, the country-rock soundtrack evocative, and the scenes in which the brothers goof about in the sunshine make you genuinely hope they’ll succeed. History, however, had other ideas.
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While all this should be enough to make a compelling movie, the scriptwriting is, at times, so heavy-handed it feels like Durkin’s wielding an iron claw of his own.
"The Olympics was taken from you the way football was taken from me!" Jack tells Kerry, when it is announced that, for political reasons, the USA will not be competing in the 1980 Moscow games.
Kevin’s wife Pam (Lily James), meanwhile, is introduced as a plucky independent woman, then fobbed off with lots of expositionary dialogue. "Did your folks not teach you to ask questions?" she asks the awkward Kevin. The same could be said of the film, which sets up far more than it pays off.
Further research reveals that there was another Von Erich – the youngest, Chris – who killed himself aged 21, and doesn’t feature in the film at all.
Durkin had his reasons for leaving him out, but you wonder if a documentary might have been a better way to martial such knotty material.