For his debut feature, 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, writer/director Sean Durkin specified that the actions that unfolded weren’t moulded after any one specific cult – the film centred around a young woman suffering from delusions and paranoia after returning to her family from an abusive cult in the Catskill Mountains – and that he more based his narrative after his own feelings and perception. For The Iron Claw, Durkin (once again serving as writer and director) has almost too many historical notes to lift his story from as he lays focus on the infamous Von Erich family, their professional legacy in the world of wrestling, and the overwhelming personal tragedy that befell them.
Ultimately, Durkin has removed certain aspects of their story for being too devastating.
And whilst some purists may cry foul of such historical accuracy being altered, our emotional state as an audience is all the better for The Iron Claw exercising certain restraint when it comes to the seeming “curse” that followed this family. Led by Fritz and Doris Von Erich (Holt McCallany and Maura Tierney), Durkin’s script informs us of their mentality early as we garner the information that Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) worships at the alter of wrestling – a sport that Fritz, especially, has led his boys to honour as if it was their religion. Having already lost one of their sons – we hear of the passing of Jack Jr. throughout, Kevin’s would’ve-been-older-brother who was only 6-years-old at the time of their death, a freak drowning accident at Niagara Falls – it seems unfathomable to us as viewers to witness Fritz and Doris’ practical ranking system of their remaining boys.
At the top appears to be Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), the pride-and-joy of the family due to his placement on the Olympic discus-hurling team; Kevin, all beef and sculpted blood, who’s currently the family’s most active member in the wrestling profession, rears in “second place”; David (Harris Dickinson) only slightly trails, with his natural showmanship building up a solid reputation behind Kevin; and the youngest, Mike (Stanley Simons), constantly on the outs due to his more musical inclinations, a career as a musician something Fritz acknowledges but never respects. Chris Von Erich, who’s actually the youngest of the family, and, naturally, a wrestler, is omitted from the story, something that Durkin purposely chose to do as Chris’ circumstances were “another tragedy the film couldn’t really withstand.”
Suggesting it as “another tragedy” indicates a certain temperament The Iron Claw submits to, and, indeed, the continual downfall of each of the boys – professionally, emotionally and psychologically – laces the film with an almost unbearable weight of sadness. There are momentary highs – much to do with the introduction of Pam (Lily James), Kevin’s eventual wife, who services the audience as our own gateway entrance into their surreal environment – but a plethora of lows, and even though the film threatens to over-do its harrowing nature, it’s a real-life account that, somehow, spares us from complete torturous density.
Though it may seem like an odd comment to make in that The Iron Claw is a film best experienced when it’s evident that so much of the 132 minute running time is dramatic and miserable, it’s a reminder of the unfair nature of life itself, and sometimes we have to participate in a certain lived-in anguish. Whatever is personally taken away from the film, however, you’ll be hard pressed to not be utterly floored by the entire ensemble, with Efron, especially, transforming himself as a performer in a manner that goes beyond his mere outer exterior. It goes without saying that his physique is beyond impressive, but he’s never been more vulnerable as an actor here, and the tight-knit fellowship between himself, White, Dickinson and Simons is so beautiful and organic, and a healthy representation of masculine exposure, that it may not necessarily make the wounds of the film hurt less, but certainly more brookable.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Iron Claw is screening in Australian theatres from January 18th, 2024.