Taking its name from the Von Erich family’s signature wrestling move, Sean Durkin’s drama The Iron Claw takes place in the Dallas/Denton area of Texas in the early 80’s. Currently living in the state, I was not familiar with the Von Erich’s prior to my viewing of the film, though that’s likely to do with not having much of a familiarity with the history of wrestling. Thankfully, The Iron Claw appeals to a broader audience rather than the avid fan of the sport, displaying not only the grueling assaults taking place in the ring, but also the repeated tragedy interwoven within the supposed ‘cursed’ family.
Growing up as the eldest brother (after having lost his older brother who died after an accidental electric shock and drowned), Kevin Von Erich (played by a barely recognizable beefcake Zac Efron) is the lead champion of the family, tutoring his younger brothers Kerry, David and Mike (Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson and Stanley Simons, respectively) in wrestling moves and showmanship. One by one, Kevin loses his brothers to health complications and mental illness throughout their national competitions, not to mention severe physical wounds and damage to their physical state. Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) plays an entirely convincing conservative father to his boys, drilling them into the ground so brutally that they essentially become cogs in a machine. Eliminating any sign of emotional weakness, Fritz continues to rank the boys as favorites throughout their growing years, actively encouraging the boys to contend for their father’s slight degree of affection.
Much of Dunkirk’s scenes play as an assault on the senses. Shots taking place in the wrestling ring are compounded by the visceral slams and beatings that the brothers both inflict and succumb to. A fierce drop to the concrete in front of the audience elicited gasps from the theater, the boys’ throttles almost seeming to inflict as much pain on them as on the viewers. Close up angles of the wrestler’s sweat-drenched faces leaves you fooled and guessing whether the matches are indeed thoughtfully choreographed and performed after all.
It’s worth noting that upon further reading into the Von Erich family, the film omits the history of the family’s youngest, Chris, whose short stature and strength prevented him from succeeding in the ring. At age 21, he committed suicide from a fatal shot to the head. While deviating from Mike’s history as a wrestler, perhaps including all five brothers’ tragic demise would be a lot to swallow in the film’s two hour runtime. Covering so much ground in The Iron Claw, Durkin unraveling the trials and tribulations of the Von Erichs leaves little room to breathe after so much personal and familial devastation, a lesson in that no matter how much stake you put in fighting and remaining strong against the luck of the draw, history will tend to repeat itself.