Film: The Iron Claw
Cast: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Stanley Simons, Holt McCallany, Lily James, Cazzey Louis Cereghino
Director: Sean Durkin
Runtime: 132 min
This true story about Von Erich brothers, who made history in the intensely competitive world of professional wrestling in the early 1980s, is a biopic with a difference. Through tragedy and triumph, under the shadow of their domineering father and coach (who could in today’s terms be labeled abusive), we get to see the glaring obsessive parenting mistakes that brought about the downfall of the family that was once considered royalty in professional wrestling circles. They were the wrestling family that kicked off what is now the money-spinning world of the professional wrestling dynasty. It’s another thing that those mistakes are couched in words like ‘cursed’ etc., the normal panacea for people who choose not to separate the woods from the trees. They were the superstars saddled with one of the darkest, bizarre curses in sporting history. Surely, it’s truly a curse when an abuser disguises his abuse as love…isn`t it?
This is a deeply devastating tragedy told with the least bit of fuss. The camera invades the Von Erich household as the brothers attempt to seek larger-than-life immortality, on the biggest stage in sports, egged on by their cold and focused father who seeks to blind himself to the tragic toll his family is having to weather because of it. The four brothers who were forced to live, breathe, and eat wrestling, have to compete with each other to win their tough-talking Dad’s approval and their overly religious Mom, Doris (Maura Tierney) would just acquiesce to whatever the Dad decided. Dad Fritz (Holt McCallany) desperately wanted to win the World Wrestling title but couldn’t. He was the original Iron Claw in wrestling circles. The titular Black and white montage has him brandishing his famed weapon against opponents and leaving them devastated and bleeding within the four corners of the ring. So getting his sons to follow in his footsteps despite their abilities in other areas, appears to be the expected thing.
The narrative is centered around Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron), the second oldest of the bunch. The first child Jack died when he was a toddler, from an electrocution accident no less. So we don’t get to know him other than through a magic-realism sequence towards the end. The other brothers in the picture include David (Harris Dickinson) who went on to grab the NWA Worlds Heavyweight champion, Kerry (Jeremy Allan White) who grapples with substance abuse and is the Olympic level discuss thrower who gave up on that dream because of the boycott of the Moscow Olympics by the USA, and a fledgling musician, the youngest, Mike(Stanley Simons), who, like his brothers—fights to fit in and competes for his father’s approval. Kevin marries Pam (Lily James) and has his own family with two kids. The story focuses majorly on the resilience of the family despite the crippling setbacks. There’s never any talk of guilt or of grieving. They just press forward after every setback. Kevin truly believes his family is cursed while Doris, despite her faith being tested beyond endurance, believes her God knows best. Towards the end, we see her finally giving up on shoring up the family and doing her own thing. It’s the most telling and emotive moment in the film.
Writer-Director Sean Durkin doesn’t allow much emotion to seep through into his telling. His decision to keep Chris, another of the Von Erich brothers out of the picture entirely bears questioning though. It’s the actors though who lend weight to the heart-breaking story. Zac Efron, in the most physically and emotionally demanding role of his career, gives an impeccably lived-in performance as Kevin Von Erich. Zac embodies the burden that Kevin has to carry to live up to his Father’s ambitions, even when his body, mind, and family are saying otherwise. The supporting cast is equally flawless.
One should look at ‘The Iron Claw’ as a cautionary tale about fraternal bonding that ensures the toxic insularity of the entire family unit. It tells us that being strong isn’t everything and that communication is the first step towards keeping our mental health secure.
There’s plenty of energy and passion in this bid to entertain and thrill, but the slow-moving narrative and lack of character development make it a heavy-duty, trying experience. The filming mirrors the emotional cauterization experienced by the family. Though the camerawork by Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély is brilliant the entire experience ultimately ends up feeling empty and superficial because the audience never really gets emotionally invested in what is happening on screen. It feels mostly like an out-of-body experience. Director Sean Durkin though, manages to give us an authentic inside view of some of those vicariously exciting wrestling matches that took place before the invasion of the internet and social media. Even so, the tragic tale of brotherhood, love, pain, expectations, favoritism, and legacy feels lost in translation!