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REVIEW — “The Iron Claw”

A beefed-up and brooding Zac Efron transforms himself into a burdened beast in wrestling drama The Iron Claw, a emotionally brutal tale of the Von Erich’s tragic and triumphant bonds of brotherhood.

The film follows the true story of the Von Erich family, an all-American professional wrestling dynasty from Texas that competed in the 1980s. Known for popularizing “The Iron Claw” professional wrestling hold, family patriarch Fritz (Holt McCallany) raised his four boys to achieve what he could not: an NWA World Champion—the toughest, strongest, most successful, and absolute best in the sport of wrestling.

He fuels their competitive spirit by openly showing his favoritism and ranking his sons’ worth based on their athleticism. His number one son is budding Olympian Kerry Von Erich (The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White). Pushed to perfection, White shows how the effects of trying to please a domineering father can result in a downward spiral.

Next is Kevin Von Erich (Efron) who is on track to lead his father’s World Class Championship Wrestling. Efron delivers his finest performance as the shy, often overlooked Kevin who suffers the most by struggling to keep his family together while also trying to create a family of his own with confident wife Pam (Lily James).

Behind Kevin on the wrestling roster is boisterous brother David Von Erich (Harris Dickinson) who makes up for what he lacks in muscles by being a dynamic wrestling personality on the microphone. In last place on Fritz’s scale of Von Erich glory is youngest brother Mike Von Erich (Stanley Simons), a scrawny, sensitive artist who’d rather be a musician than follow in the family sport. The film also stars Maura Tierney as Von Erich matriarch, Doris.

As much as their overbearing father and coach encourages their rivalry by pitting them against each other, the brothers have an unbreakable bond and genuinely root for each other. Such displays of brotherly love are beautiful and rare in competitive sports dramas, and in The Iron Claw, only serve to heighten the emotional impact when tragedy repeatedly strikes. You see, the inseparable brothers Von Erich not only had to do battle inside the ring, but they also had to fight the “Von Erich curse” outside of it: a string of unbearable personal tragedies that began with the death of their oldest brother at a young age.

Director Sean Durkin takes the tragic true story of the Von Erichs and elevates it from sad sports tale to a compelling and heartbreaking drama that is elevated by perfectly cast performers at the top of their game. While The Iron Claw highlights the showy swagger, costumes, hairstyles, and egos of 80s-era American wrestling, it is ultimately less about wrestling than it is about the undying bonds of brotherhood, a fact that Durkin drives home with a devastatingly beautiful finale that will leave you emotionally tapped out. 4/5

Rated PG-13 with a running time of 2 hours, 13 minutes, The Iron Claw opens in theaters on December 22, 2023.

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