By Kirsten Coachman
“Now we all know Kerry’s my favorite, then Kev, then David, then Mike—but the rankings can always change.”
The line delivered by the family patriarch, former professional wrestler Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany, “Mindhunter”), in Sean Durkin’s “The Iron Claw” garners a round of laughter from the audience. Later, as the film unfolds, there’s a realization that the sentiment is no laughing matter.
Opening this weekend, “The Iron Claw” chronicles the high-flying dreams and the tragic true story of the Von Erich wrestling family. Written and directed by Durkin (“The Nest”), the film captures the unconditional love and support between the Von Erich brothers Kevin (Zac Efron, “17 Again”), David (Harris Dickinson, “Triangle of Sadness”), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White, “The Bear”), and Mike (Stanley Simons, “Superior”) and how they collectively forged their family name through the ranks of professional wrestling in the ’70s and ’80s even as tragedy repeatedly kept knocking at their door.
At the forefront of the film is Kevin Von Erich—he’s the main event in Fritz’s Texas-based wrestling promotion, World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW). Fritz has his eye on Kevin winning a World Championship Title.
Though he puts work in at his father’s Sportatorium, Kevin doesn’t possess the natural talent that his brother David has on the mic—a key component professional wrestlers need as they progress in their careers. As Kevin tries to cut a promo behind the scenes and then later, following a match against Harley Race (Kevin Anton), this weakness is exposed, thus opening the door for David to move up the ranks in the ring and in the eyes of Fritz.
Following President Carter’s boycott of the Olympics in 1980, the family track star, Kerry, returns home and is asked to join his brothers in the ring. Michael, the youngest of the clan and aspiring musician, reluctantly makes his debut down the line. (In the film’s press notes, it’s mentioned that Durkin made a narrative decision to omit Chris Von Erich from the film.)
Audiences—especially pro wrestling fans—will appreciate the wrestling sequences featuring the actors in the squared circle. Knowing how dangerous the sport can be, watching Efron, White, and Dickinson flinging themselves off the ropes and doing side-by-side drop kicks is an incredible sight to behold. But most importantly, it all reads authentic on screen, and that’s due to the commitment from Durkin’s cast. They all bought in—physical transformations and all—to tell a tremendously emotional story that will connect with audiences tangibly.
Efron, in particular, is at the top of his game in this film. The sensibility he brings to Kevin, especially as his brothers find favor in the ring, is particularly striking as his character sees himself sliding down the rungs in real-time. Efron’s creative approach to playing the older Von Erich brother emphasizes his love for his family, his brothers, and the sport of wrestling. There’s a sweet naivete to his character, especially when he’s around Pam (Lily James, “Baby Driver”) early in their courtship. All of the brothers have a sensitivity to them, but Kevin attempts to carry the weight for them all.
As the so-called Von Erich “curse” begins to cast over the brothers, Kevin starts to see how this enormous life-long pressure to be the toughest and the strongest isn’t going to save his family. Efron’s physical performance plays a significant role in the film as Kevin runs back and forth against the ropes in the ring at the Sportatorium to try and extinguish the tension, stress, and grief he’s entrenched in.
It’s a genuinely moving performance from Efron, and it is unlike anything else he’s done previously in his career.
Durkin’s storytelling prowess is key as he tackles not only the insurmountable grief this family experiences over the years but also the pressure of trying to fulfill a dream that isn’t necessarily one’s own and the plight of being the older sibling. Though the sadness the Von Erich family faced may be unrivaled—and Durkin handles their story with a great deal of care—there are layers of relatability throughout their family dynamic, proving “The Iron Claw” to ultimately be grounded in humanity.
“The Iron Claw” is now playing in theaters.