The Iron Claw takes the soapy melodrama of professional wresting and elevates it to Shakespearean tragedy

Of all the various entertainment forms and franchises I embraced growing up (many of which remain with me to this day), the one thing I could never get into was professional wrestling. It just never clicked for me, especially the hyper-adrenal American incarnations. Sure, I may have watched the out bout between Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy back in the day as I was forced to endure WORLD OF SPORT while I had my lunch on Saturday but it never sank its (Iron?) claws into me the same way it did for some of my best friends. The hammy posturing, repetitive banter and archly camp machismo didn’t appeal and as for the labyrinthine so-called plotlines with vendettas, double-crosses and abrupt heel turns it seemed to me like a glam rock soap opera for those who would grow up (or more appositely fail to grow up) to hang on every word of the latest Joe Rogan podcast. As such, I approached THE IRON CLAW with some trepidation. A fictionalised movie about a real family involved in a fake sport? Where’s the appeal in that?

Charting the (abridged) rises and falls of the Von Erich family’s fortunes, Sean Durkin’s masterfully melancholy screenplay takes this tale of flamboyant capes and sweat soaked leotards and pushes through the risk of schlocky soap opera melodrama to find something more akin to a Shakesperean tragedy, albeit one with Frog Splashes and Double Underhook Suplexes. At tale of patriarchal determination to succeed at any and all costs, it unfolds against a backdrop of an inflection point for professional wrestling, a golden era for the purity of the sport (Sport? Circus? Art? Eh, whatever) just as the big money was starting to creep in as the corporations sensed the opportunity. And while money plays its part in the ruthless driving ambition, it’s glory and titles that propel events forward to their seemingly inevitable conclusion.

The strength of “The Iron Claw” lies not just in its storytelling – in fact there’s so much tragedy to explore in the lives of the Von Erichs that it’s abridged here to ensure the finish product is a workable cinematic length – but in the powerhouse performances that bring these larger-than-life figures and events to life. Holt McCallany’s Fritz Von Erich bestrides the movie like a colossus, part King Lear, part Dorian Grey – a man whose vicarious ambitions are destined to bring about the downfall of his “kingdom” while at the same time reflecting the terrible consequences of his single-minded pursuit of glory not into an attic-stashed portrait but in his own sons, who often end up paying the ultimate price for their father’s vanity and pride. McCallany manages to make Von Erich senior understandable if not exactly sympathetic but very, very human even at his most inhumane.

Of course, the attention grabbing, transformative performance is that of Zac Efron, who’s unfeasibly bulked out physique makes him look like he’s ready to play the Hulk version of High School Musical’s Troy Boulton’s Bruce Banner. Efron leads the ensemble of Von Erich children, who have a much more miserable time of it than their counterparts in the Von Trapp family, creating a real sense of brotherhood and fellowship (thanks to the era-accurate hairstyling the four of them do unfortunately at times resemble a ‘roided out version of Merry, Pippin, Sam and Frodo) both in resistance to and in pursuit of the favour of their father’s approval.

THE IRON CLAW then isn’t, thankfully, a movie about wrestling but a movie about wrestlers and there’s a lot to absorb in this tale of four men struggling to find their place in the shadow of a cruelly judgemental legacy.  All four performances capture the differing ordinal perspectives of sibling rivalry, camaraderie, and the unyielding pressure of living up to a self-aggrandized family name. The actors manage to convey the internal and external battles each of the Von Erich children face in balancing their own hopes and dreams with those of their father, making each victory and defeat feel deeply personal. Harris Dickinson and Jeremy Allen White may get the lion’s share of the juicy drama showcase moments but it’s in Efron that the film finds its anchor, keeping the audience rooted in the humanity of the unfolding story.

THE IRON CLAW’s story is told with a delicate finesse, Durkin’s screenplay balancing moments of high drama and action with emotional introspection and time for the characters – and the audience – to come to terms with the unfolding events. The judicious editing of real-life events to fit a reasonable runtime is largely invisible, especially to those like me who were almost entirely unaware of the real life Von Erichs and the visuals and cinematography add a layer of verisimilitude, paying respectful homage to the aesthetics and theatrics of the era and the sport.

An unconventional sports movie, THE IRON CLAW embraces none of the tropes and traditions of the genre. Here, there is no plucky underdog victory or last-minute hail mary turn of events. Each step forward on the path to glory comes at an increasingly terrible price and instead of the warm afterglow of triumph against the odds, you’ll be left feeling like you’re pinned to the mat, contemplating the terrible wastefulness of hubris.

The Iron Claw Review
Score 8
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