The Iron Claw is ‘shallow’ and ‘bland’

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By Caryn JamesFeatures correspondent

Brian Roedel/24 The Iron Claw still of wrestling matchBrian Roedel/24

(Credit: Brian Roedel/24)

A father pushes his sons to extremes in Sean Durkin’s film about the Von Erich wrestling dynasty, starring Zac Efron. It’s full of tragedy – but is ‘disappointing’.

It’s tricky when filmmakers finally realise their passion project, the one they’ve hoped to make for years. The Iron Claw, about a family of wrestlers whose lives are so tragic they feel cursed, is that project for Sean Durkin. In interviews he has said that ever since he was a boy in the UK, a wrestling fan, he has been fascinated by the five Von Erichs, brothers in Texas who were at the top of the sport in the 1980s. The real events are, indeed, one tragedy piled on another, and the film depicts a father who ruthlessly pushes his sons to fulfil his own dream of a world championship.

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But who are these characters? Durkin seems to take for granted that they’re as fascinating to us as they are to him, instead of engaging us in his long-simmering enthusiasm. And although the Von Erichs may have been wrestling royalty, they never gained mainstream pop-culture fame, so most viewers can’t fill in the blanks themselves. Despite its committed and physically bulked-up actors – including Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson as three of the brothers – The Iron Claw is a flat narrative that spells things out in broad, neat terms. Durkin’s far more accomplished films include The Nest (2020) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), both of which shrewdly probe their characters’ psychology, so The Iron Claw’s shallowness and eventual treacliness are especially disappointing. 

More than once the film clumsily spells out how Fritz is living through his children

The family’s patriarch, a former wrestler (played by Holt McCallany), adopted the name Fritz Von Erich to portray a Nazi-sympathising villain in the ring. If toxic masculinity were a phrase back then he’d be the model for it, driving his sons to physical extremes and playing favourites. McCallany makes him stern and unquestioning but Fritz is a one-note character, telling his sons that he wants a championship belt “in this house”. More than once the film clumsily spells out how he is living through his children, oblivious to how damaging that pressure can be, leading to drug abuse, depression and worse. 

An early voiceover from the oldest brother, Kevin (Efron), says he had always heard the family was cursed, but that voiceover vanishes until the film’s end. That’s too bad because Kevin is the most clear-sighted sibling, slowly opening his eyes to the flaws in his father’s plan. Efron tries to convey Kevin’s inner conflict, but the film is overwhelmed by bland scenes that chart the training, setbacks and rise of the Von Erich dynasty.

Fritz tells his son Kerry (White) it’s time for him to join the family business, and Kerry eagerly agrees, although we have no idea what he is really thinking, if anything. David (Dickinson) is the best among them at creating a bombastic persona, necessary in a sport that, the film points out in some quick scenes, relies on showmanship as much as athleticism. Even the sensitive youngest brother, Michael (Stanley Simons), is forced into the ring. The screenplay eliminates a fifth real-life wrestling brother, but it is still overloaded with exposition.

The Iron Claw

Director: Sean Durkin

Cast: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Lily James, Holt McCallany, Maura Tierney

Run time: 2h 12m

Release date: 22 December in the US, 9 February 2024 in the UK

When a fan named Pam (a game Lily James) pursues Kevin, they start dating, and he tells her he wants nothing more in life than to be with his brothers, an intense bond that is asserted rather than fleshed out on screen. Then, voila, Kevin and Pam marry. Moura Tierney plays the boys’ deeply religious mother, who tells Kevin, when he wants to talk to her about a problem, “That’s what your brothers are for”. Like so much in the film, that scene is psychologically ominous, but not deep.

Efron and White have transformed their bodies for their roles and do some amazing stunts in the ring, as the brothers leap on opponents or use the Von Erichs’ signature move, the Iron Claw, bare hands crushing an opponent’s skull. Durkin balances the wrestling and family scenes well, and in glimpses shows himself to be a fine filmmaker. A triple-exposure of the brothers’ faces reveals them enduring the physical pain that resulted from their sport.

The drama eventually picks up when the disasters begin to hit. A quick internet search can tell you about the tragedies, but they are surprises in the film, and shouldn’t be spoiled. Durkin doesn’t depict the events, just the aftermath and effect on the family. Those few deft touches don’t go very far, though. A bit of sibling rivalry near the end lands as a relief, signalling – much too late – that these brothers are human after all.

★★☆☆☆

The Iron Claw is released on 22 December in the US, and 9 February 2024 in the UK.

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