Following the end of his wrestling career, Fritz Von Erich [McCallany] pushes his sons into the family business. Through determination and skill, they rise to exceptional renown in the Texas pro wrestling scene. Kevin [Efron] is the frontrunner for a title race but, with his younger brother David [Dickinson] having superior mic skills, and Kerry [White] fresh out of training for the 1980 olympics, the competition is fierce. That said, the brothers have an extremely close bond and genuinely love each other’s company as much as wrestling. But the Von Erichs believe their family name is cursed and, as the story unfolds, true horrors continually plague the family.
As with any sport biopic, it’s impossible not to address the physicality of the performances. Not only are the actors put through their paces to deliver extreme emotional highs and lows, but they have to sell the wrestling itself. And each member of the family does so phenomenally. Yes, wrestling is pre-determined but the hits and the endurance are real. And the toll taken on these young men is expressed and felt both in and out of the ring. On top of that, there’s a legitimate chemistry that unites the brothers. For all the toxicity of the environment they’re growing up in, and the pressures of the job, there is a significant amount of love shared between the siblings.
But, oddly, none of this would make the necessary impact or have a sense of earnestness, without the overbearing presence of the family patriarch, Fritz. And McCallany gives a truly terrifying performance. Not only as a father playing his children against each other to maintain a competitive edge, but also as a frustrated former wrestler who feels passed over. It’s no accident that the very opening shot of the movie is a close-up of Fritz’s gurning face bearing down on the audience as he violently stomps on his opponent. And all of this comes together in the most subtle of ways. Sure, there are a handful of blow-out moments and confrontations, but it’s the micro-aggressions and snide comments that cut deep. Case in point, at the height of Kevin, David and Kerry’s success, their father proudly steps into the ring, grabs the mic and not only calls out the NWA owner, he then makes official announcements of David overstepping Kevin for a title shot, and conscripts youngest brother Mike [Stanley Simons] at the same time. And their collective reactions sell the moment magnificently. Fritz is playing the business angle, David is in shock, Kerry is happy for the win, Kevin feels dejected, and Mike has an initial look of fear – as someone who wants to pursue a career in music, rather than wrestling.
From a technical standpoint, there are plenty of soft touch immersions that aid in selling the film. The costumes, hair and production details are all period appropriate, and even the colour grading and lens choice has a late 70s/early 80s sheen to it. What’s more, The Iron Claw is spectacularly paced, taking its time to believably cement the brother’s bond, before undercutting any joy with tragedy. While you might expect the continual downfall of the family to grow somewhat stale or predictable, the way devastation is unveiled is so very shocking and abrupt. Sure, we get elements of foreshadowing, but the editing almost revels in catching the audience off guard with an almost jump-scare reveal of misfortune. And, considering the film opens by detailing the supposed family curse, you brush it aside until events begin to unfold. At which point, you start to understand why Kevin gives it so much weight and fearfully believes it’s real.
Without a doubt, this is an exceptional narrative woven from trials and tribulation, along the same lines as films like The Wrestler and Foxcatcher. But, as with all biopics there is plenty of historical and chronological amalgamation for the purposes of telling a good story. And, for most cinemagoers, that won’t even register as an issue. But for close followers of wrestling and the Von Erichs, it will feel spurious in places. Most notably, there is the complete omission of Chris, the youngest Von Erich brother. But to include yet another tragic figure in this story would extend the runtime even further. Another oversight is how the film represents and conveys the 80s wrestling craze. By only showing dimly lit warehouses and TV promos as they’re being recorded, the film doesn’t do enough to explain just how popular this family of fighters were. That doesn’t mean the film should exaggerate beyond credibility but the prominence and stature of their reach doesn’t seem to reflect the reality or draw an equivalent for modern audiences.
The Iron Claw exists as a counterpoint to the old adage that diamonds are made under pressure. It’s a grim look at what constant provocation and expectations can do to unravel a person. And with every minute of its runtime, it illustrates the price of chasing dreams regardless of the cost.
09 February 2024
The Scene To Look Out For:
Toward the film’s close, there is an ambiguous scene. One that could be interpreted as supernatural closure, or simply the internal wishes of a grieving man. It is the most blunt “crossing the river Styx” presentation that I’ve seen in a long time, and while, in lesser hands it could feel corny or stupid, it oddly works. If only because the audience has been put through so much emotional duress, that this modicum of peace is a welcome respite.
With so many characters to juggle, there are a few important figures that are fairly sidelined. As with so many combat sport movies, the “wives and girlfriends” section is almost always underwritten. In this instance, Lily James does a commendable enough role as Kevin’s wife. But the really interesting, and most under explored, character is the mother of the family, Doris, played by Maura Tierney. There’s a wealth of complexity and conflict that only emerges with strangely cold lines about not wanting to get involved in the family political dynamic, and ultimately sitting on the sidelines as everything collapses around her. It feels both intriguing and something of a missed opportunity.
“I’ve dreamed of having that belt in this house my whole career. But they never gave me the chance I deserved. I always got close but they robbed at the last minute. So you have to take this opportunity. You can be the one to bring it home.”
In A Few Words:
“A masterclass in misery.”
Total Score: 4/5