By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Collins English Dictionary defines a Greek tragedy as “a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.” With this definition in mind, The Iron Claw can be best described as a Greek tragedy thrown into the depths of the wrestling ring.
Writer/director Sean Durkin, who previously helmed feature films Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Nest, tells the tragic story of the Von Erich family in this new A24 film. The Iron Claw follows Kevin Von Erich (played by Zac Efron) and his brothers, pushed by their father Fritz (played by Holt McCallany) as they try to excel in the competitive world of wrestling. As the brothers attempt to further their wrestling careers, they grapple with the supposed “Von Erich family curse,” which holds that members of the family are destined to suffer great tragedy.
To call The Iron Claw profoundly sad would be an understatement. Not since 2016’s Manchester by the Sea has a film so unreservedly tackled trauma and loss with such emotional devastation. Regardless of whether viewers are familiar with the tragedies of the Von Erich family beforehand, The Iron Claw has a firm hold of the audience’s emotional heartstrings and doesn’t let up until the very end, when even the text appearing on the screen before the credits hits hard.
Inherently devastating, The Iron Claw excels in its ability to elicit strong emotions, but frustratingly has little of substance to say other than its sensationalization of the family tragedy itself. By virtue of the highs and lows of the Von Erich family’s journey through the wrestling world, Durkin’s film taps into a range of potentially poignant themes/ideas like brotherhood, toxic masculinity, intergenerational trauma, conceptions of masculine mental health, and parents’ imposition of their dreams on their children. Unfortunately, “taps into” is the operative phrase here. The Iron Claw has seemingly endless potential to deeply explore these themes and yet seldom does so beyond a superficial examination. What results is a movie that is undoubtedly emotional and narratively fascinating, but falls short of greatness.
Greatness, however, can be found in the impressive ensemble of performances. The most impressive is the film’s lead Zac Efron, who delivers a powerhouse performance as Kevin Von Erich that is easily the best of his career to date. Efron truly transforms into Kevin Von Erich and embodies the devastation of his family’s tragedies in heartbreaking fashion. It’s amazing what Efron is able to convey through body language in moments of silence as his character is not the most energetic or expressive.
Efron isn’t the only impressive actor here. The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White plays wrestler Kerry Von Erich in a nuanced performance that proves to contribute significantly to the film’s climatic gut punch. Triangle of Sadness’ Harris Dickinson, meanwhile, brings a presence and kindness to his performance as David Von Erich. Mindhunter’s Holt McCallany stars as the family patriarch, whose role in the film is disappointingly diminished after a more prominent presence in the first act. It’s through McCallany’s character that the seeds of toxic masculinity are planted, and Efron, White, and Dickinson do excellent work internalizing strands of McCallany’s demeanor and attitudes in their performances.
The Iron Claw is a modern Greek tragedy that fascinatingly unfolds in the wicked world of 1980s-1990s wrestling. And, as a Greek tragedy, writer/director Sean Durkin’s film packs one hell of an emotional gutpunch. Profound in its sadness and the emotional devastation it elicits, the film frustratingly falls short of greatness as it seldom has anything of great substance to say about its themes of brotherhood, toxic masculinity, and intergenerational trauma. More surface-level thematic explorations are offset by a series of nuanced performances from the year’s most impressive ensemble. Zac Efron, in particular, delivers a career-best performance as wrestling champion Kevin Von Erich. The Iron Claw is by no means an easy film to watch, nor will it be that enjoyable for many given the sadness of its subject material. Nonetheless, there’s undoubted passion both in front of and behind the camera that makes this Greek tragedy emotionally impactful.