The tragic saga behind the Von Erich wrestling family receives the big-screen treatment in “The Iron Claw.” Look, I know I frequently complain about biopics. For every quality historical retelling that slips through the cracks lies about a half-dozen lazy retreads that inject little introspection into their worthwhile subjects.
“The Iron Claw” showcases a fascinating case study. In some areas, the film hammers home a shattering emotional piledriver that conveys the sobering weight of the Von Erich legacy. In other lights, the experience gets choke slammed by the rigid restrictions that conquer most biopics.
I would label “The Iron Claw” as the feel-bad movie of the holiday season. This distinction is not a criticism; it is instead an assessment of just how many emotional gut punches lie within the film’s runtime. Writer/Director Sean Durkin thankfully imbues a sensitive lens into a story that rummages through the familial dysfunction and toxic masculinity that gradually erodes the Von Erich family. It would be easy to turn their story into an exploitative melodrama, but Durkin thankfully embraces character-driven storytelling over maudlin gimmicks in his grounded approach to the material.
As brothers Kevin, Kerry, David and Mike vie for their former wrestling father’s approval, they soon discover that their commitment to wrestling harbors an emotional burden that haunts them at every turn. The brothers may share a tight-knit bond more potent than any punch or kick they may deliver in the ring. However, a dangerous cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs, ego and, worst of all, their father’s militaristic treatment transform a once united family into a fractured shell of itself.
Durkin slowly unravels this dynamic, with the film’s most insular frames showcasing its most impactful revelations on the dark side of fame and expectations. I also praise Durkin for his attentive eye during the film’s wrestling scenes. Fans of the Von Erichs during their 80s heyday will be impressed by the attention to detail and physicality of each fight in the ring. Durkin leans less into wrestling’s superficial glitz and glamour and rightly focuses more on the sport’s unrelenting brutality. It is a fitting lens for a film that constantly demystifies the dark side of fame.
For every emotional strike that “The Iron Claw” lands, the film still leaves something to be desired. Durkin unfortunately stumbles into the all-too-common biopic trend of manipulating a real-world story to fit into a conventional narrative. I understand that some changes happen to create a concise storytelling experience, but wildly altering the real-world timeline and even removing one of the Von Erich brothers seems like a step too far. With so many narrative threads packed within this story, I feel that “Iron Claw” would be better suited as a mini-series rather than a feature film. The film lacks the breathing room needed to convey the full complexions of its material despite the sprawling 132-minute runtime.
Throughout the mixed-bag experience, it’s star Zac Efron who firmly holds the project together. Those who know Efron as a Disney Channel heartthrob will be amazed by the extraordinary lengths the actor goes to transform into Kevin Von Erich, who functions as the unofficial leader of his brothers. As tragedy continues to beset the Von Erichs, Efron’s emotionally revealing performance grapples with his family’s decay through thought-provoking introspection. I believe Efron’s performance often carries the heavy lifting for a script that outlines certain dynamics without providing them with proper shading. The supporting cast, including Holt McCallany as the Von Erichs’s vicious patriarch and Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson and Stanley Simmons as the other Von Erich brothers, also deliver a strong impact in their challenging roles.
“Iron Claw” may not be the quintessential telling of the Von Erich story, but it does offer a respectful and occasionally stirring treatment of their painful true story.