One of the central truths of professional wrestling is also one of its central paradoxes: Wrestling may be “fake” (more accurately a predetermined performance that is as much art as sport) but those involved in this “fake” pursuit it at a high level often pay a very real price. There might not be an athletic discipline (or an artistic one for that matter) with a higher mortality rate than pro wrestling. Wikipedia’s page on “premature professional wrestling deaths” is over 25,000 words long, and includes entries for performers as young as 18 years old.

Few families paid a higher price for their success in the world of wrestling than the Von Erichs, a multigenerational dynasty of performers who become one of the hottest acts in the history of the industry and then were beset by one tragedy after another. The heartache became so great that those in and around the Von Erich clan began to whisper about a curse, which is chronicled in Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw, a touching and respectful film, albeit one that feels a bit abbreviated if you go in knowing the full Von Erich saga. Durkin, a self-described wrestling fan from childhood, has managed to stuff a moving tribute to the art form and its practitioners into a two-hour feature. There’s just so much story to tell here.

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In order to wrap his hands around it, Durkin mostly focuses on one of the Von Erichs, Kevin (Zac Efron), the oldest living brother and the first to follow his father Fritz (Holt McCallany) into the family business. Note that he is the oldest living brother; the family had already lost one child to a horrible accident years before The Iron Claw’s story begins in earnest in the early 1980s. At that point, Fritz has become the owner of World Class Championship Wrestling, a regional promotion in Texas, and has made his sons — Kevin, David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and Mike (Stanley Simons) — the stars of WCCW’s television show.

Fritz was a successful wrestler in various territories around the country, but he never became a megastar and never got to hold the most prestigious title of his era, the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship. The Iron Claw suggests Fritz held a lifelong grudge over that slight and, when his sons were old enough, did everything he could to turn them into the champions he never was. Hardened by losses in and out of the ring, Fritz taught his kids that the only way to protect themselves was to be the toughest, the strongest, and the most successful. Only then, he would say, nothing — not even their supposed family curse — could hurt them.

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The Iron Claw observes with a melancholic eye (and warm, notalgia-tinged cinematography by Mátyás Erdély) the increasingly dire results of that overbearing parenting style. Fritz taught his kids to never quit, and so they never did, even when the injuries piled up and they were wracked with pain they had to smother with pills and booze, even when their loved ones began dying all around them in rapid succession.

If the burly but warm-hearted Kevin brought his concerns about Mike (who was pushed to abandon his own musical dreams by his dad) or Kerry (who is clearly a drug addict) to Fritz or his distant mom Dottie (Maura Tierney), his parents would inevitably give him a variation of the same terrible advice: “You brothers need to work this out for yourselves.”

They try, and Durkin’s film is at its best when emphasizing the connection between the Von Erich kids, especially Kevin and David. But without spoiling what happens from there, it should go without saying that they simply couldn’t work some of the problems out. The Iron Claw’s second half has the momentum of a snowball rolling downhill, until it turns into a full-blown avalanche of heartache — and that’s despite the fact that Durkin already cut a lot out of the Von Erichs’ tale, including yet another son of Fritz Von Erich, Chris, who also went into the wrestling business and also met a terrible fate. (The Iron Claw erases him from the fictional version of the family entirely.)

Certainly, a film based on true events need to make choices about what events and people to include and exclude. The Iron Claw may have become unmanageable if Durkin had included yet another Von Erich brother. Still, for a movie so much about the unbreakable bond of brotherhood, that decision struck me as an odd one.

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The Iron Claw works best when it slows down, and focuses on the relationships between the characters and the details of life in a pro wrestling family. Efron, who got himself into absurdly muscular shape to play Kevin, makes a very convincing pro wrestler — so convincing, in fact, that some of the other Von Erich actors look comparatively scrawny standing next to him. (Jeremy Allen White, one of my favorite young actors for his work on The Bear, does not quite live up to the hulking physique or easygoing charisma of the real Kerry Von Erich.)

Durkin's wrestling fandom comes through very clearly in The Iron Claw. The scripted nature of the matches is mentioned in just one scene; otherwise, the handheld camera work, and physicality of the actors strongly implies that the wrestlers are really beating the crap out of each other. That’s a surprising choice in 2023, but it speaks to The Iron Claw’s true subject: The brutal toll and actual scars left behind on the people who help create this “fake” world that entertains millions of people.

Addition Thoughts:

-If you’re a wrestling fan (like I am!) you might have heard about The Iron Claw because it’s being promoted by MJF, the current world champion of All Elite Wrestling. Although the early word on the film was that MJF played the role of yet another Von Erich family member (this one a fake Von Erich ... like I said, the real story here is very long and very complicated), his appearance is really a glorified cameo; a single scene where he has no dialogue. If you go to see this film specifically to see how MJF fares as an actor, you might be disappointed.

RATING: 7/10

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