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Featured Review

The Iron Claw ★★★★



Released: 9 February 2024

Director: Sean Durkin

Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson

Stories about the cost of sporting excellence – usually with a pushy parent in the mix- aren’t new to the public consciousness. More specifically, a host of documentaries have unearthed the dark side of wrestling; however, one shocking account stands out for its sheer scale. Written and directed by Sean Durkin, The Iron Claw depicts the real-life story of a Texan pro wrestling family whose numerous deaths gave rise to the belief in a curse placed upon its members. Much like the debilitating signature move of the film’s title, Durkin delivers an agonising psychodrama that places the viewer in a spell of powerlessness. Yet, for those who can endure the discomfort, there is more to be taken away than just melancholy.

We first meet Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) as he gets out of bed. With a hulking mass so cut it looks almost painful (and truthfully, a little comical) to carry around, he’s just one of several muscle-bound Von Erichs crammed around the breakfast table. Headed by their imposing father Fritz (Holt McCallany) and repressed mother Dotty (Maura Tierney) the boys are casually informed of their current rankings in their father’s eyes – with promotion and demotion very much a possibility. Durkin utilises the film’s first hour to immerse the audience in the world of the Von Erichs and the brotherly bond required to survive it all. Kevin, along with David (a charismatic Harris Dickinson) and Mike (Stanley Simmons) live sheltered from the notion of an existence outside the ring. As the trio float down a lake in beautiful summer weather, it’s telling that instead of joining the throng of kids their age goofing around nearby, they sail past comfortably entertained by each other. The supplementation of youthful exploits in favour of pumping iron and practising moves is apparent when Kevin meets Pam (Lily James). A gentle, mild-mannered soul, Kevin bears the hallmarks of a boy much younger than his physique would suggest. He tells Pam of the family curse, detailing an older brother who died as an infant. Pam is dismissive of the notion, but whether you’ve come to the film with full knowledge of what comes to pass or not, a knot in the stomach begins to form.  And so, when Kerry Von Erich’s (Jeremy Allen White) destiny as an Olympian is altered by the U.S decision to boycott the 1980 Olympics, causing him to join Kevin and David in the ring, a thick sense of dread seeps into each remaining minute of the runtime.

Admit it or not, the draw of Von Erich’s story might be that such epic tragedy feels like it must be seen to be believed. Devastatingly there is even more misfortune than what makes the final cut of The Iron Claw. Durkin demonstrates a skilful sensitivity in his approach to such heavy subject matter and despite the film drowning in self-loathing and toxic masculinity, it avoids being emotionally manipulative. Zac Efron gives a truly revelatory performance as Kevin, his delicacy in the role as incredible as his physical stature. McCallany as the villain of the piece never feels overdone, instead horrifyingly grounded. Durkin showcases experience in depicting malevolent forces, as seen in the 2011 unsettling psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene. Fritz’s influence is indeed cult-like, instructing his impressionable disciples who swallow his teachings while buckling under the pain. Although there is little respite to be found amongst the despair engulfing the Von Erichs, Durkin still manages to intersperse wrestling scenes that illustrate the exhilaration of the ring; and for those who grew up as fans of the sport, even the thud of the ref tapping out a conquered opponent proves a thrill. 

The inevitable grimness of events in The Iron Claw is inescapable, yet Durkin’s creative choices, particularly in its tear-jerking final moments, elevate it far beyond being yet another agonising spectacle, but instead a masterful, thoughtful meditation on power, perception and ultimately, survival.

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