Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Iron Claw.
A24 has had a hell of a 2023 so far — from releasing one of their most expensive films to date in Ari Aster‘s much-maligned Beau is Afraid, to ruling the horror genre in summer with their Sundance pickup Talk To Me and dropping one of the most emotional love stories seen in decades in Past Lives — A24 has found itself the center of film conversations all year long. December is proving no different. The Iron Claw is quickly becoming the talk of the town with Zac Efron‘s impassioned performance drawing many to countless tears. And it completely lives up to the hype.
‘The Iron Claw’ Displays Life In the Ring for the Von Erichs
In the opening black-and-white moments of the film, it’s easy to see the troubled, tortured journey that is about to transpire. Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), sweating profusely with an enraged facial expression, is seen kicking his opponent in the wrestling ring relentlessly. Directly following this moment, he steps out of the building, showered and relaxed, to greet his two young boys, Kevin and Kerry, with a face of fatherly joy. A special type of joy that could not be further from that which is rendered while wrestling. This launching scene quickly and easily identifies the key themes that are at play throughout the entire film and allows them to seep through multiple generations of athletes.
Fritz views wrestling as the way to beat “it,” whatever “it” might be. A family curse, poverty, or the hopeless complacency of fading into humanity’s history as nobodies. His wife Dotty (Maura Tierney), while consistently a supporter of his ideals, clearly carries stress and pain at this idea of how to raise their children. The movie rolls on to the mid-’70s where Fritz has passed the fame of the ring down to his now-grown sons.
While The Iron Claw does leave out a sixth brother in Chris Von Erich, it passionately represents the power of the Von Erich brotherhood. Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons) all fill out different, soul-crushing aspects of their family legacy and what might very well be a curse stuck to their name. A family breakfast in which Fritz mentions that “the rankings are always changing” (in reference to the favoritism of his sons) is the first of many foreshadowing circumstances effortlessly dispersed throughout the film by writer and director Sean Durkin and one that is an uncomfortably direct look into their relationship with their father and the outright power that wrestling, and the wrestling mentality, has on them.
‘The Iron Claw’ Reigns With Its Incredible Performances & Intimate Storytelling
Some downright nostalgic and perfectly placed needle drops are laid down throughout the film with Blue Öyster Cult’s “The Reaper” leading off a slick “oner” guiding the audience to David’s ring debut with his brother Kevin. While he doesn’t quite outshine Zac Efron’s physical alterations for the film, Harris Dickinson brings David’s on-screen presence to life with a look and an accent that is alluring in its own right.
Editor Matthew Hannam smartly utilizes the mythical use of a sports montage to energetically enter the next phase of the Von Erich story and enshrine the family legacy that digs deeper into the dynamic between each brother and their struggle for greatness — whether in the ring or the eyes of their father. The film routinely functions as a vehicle for looking at the story across multiple points of view, firstly that of Fritz and his own personal demons he is trying to excise, and secondly that of the Von Erich brothers, being the recipients of such brutal and heartless parenting techniques.
Kerry’s true introduction to the movie comes when the United States boycotts the 1980 Summer Olympics. With Olympian dreams dashed, he is quick to succumb to the boyish nature of seeking to please his father after Fritz encourages him to join the family in wrestling. Fritz’s reasoning — that he had professional football taken from him at a young age — accentuates the deep regret and pain that Fritz lives with daily. Regret and pain are authoritative drivers of his cold, disheartened parenting style.
This idea opens up a vast and complex side of the story that has defined recent sub-genre-defining films about greatness such as 2014’s Whiplash and 2022’s Tar. What does it take to achieve ultimate greatness? The Iron Claw does a skillful job of leaving this question bubbling under the surface of the main storyline of the brothers and their wrestling careers, consistently rearing its own “Iron Claw” of sorts, demanding dissection.
As the Von Erich brothers begin to garner fame and success, Kevin gets married to Pam (Lily James) and starts a family, offering the birth of what ends up being his own personal battle that drives the rest of the film in seeking a true understanding of healthy masculinity and what constitutes a rewarding legacy. It’s soon after the joys of these events that tragedy strikes and the hallowed curse of the Von Erich family appears truer by the minute. David, on tour in Japan and quickly rising the ranks to become the NWA World Champion, dies of a ruptured intestine.
Durkin’s choice to match this heartbreaking reality with the elation of Kevin’s wedding, a scene in which all brothers are seen joyously dancing with each other, is just one of many smart visual juxtapositions that enhance the authenticity of the emotional beats of the film. The quickened pace of the downfall of the Von Erich’s success and mental well-being is another strong punch from Durkin, giving the audience little time to sit with a single tragedy before having to move on with life, much as the Von Erichs themselves are forced to do.
‘The Iron Claw’ Review: A Riveting, Heartfelt Movie
With an act as simple as a coin flip, Kerry is chosen to replace David on his odyssey to bring the championship belt to their house. From here on out, the ceaseless, grim nature of the film controls the narrative, bringing forth some of the most affecting emotional sequences to hit the big screen this year. Sean Durkin carefully navigates the internal qualms each brother battles while keeping a focus on the joint unit of the Von Erich brotherhood.
With workout and wrestling montages that are animalistic in nature and entertaining to no end, and heartbreaking scenes of loss, defeat, and turmoil, The Iron Claw offers an array of rewarding scenes that come together to make one of the best movies of the year. The cast, led by a stellar Zac Efron in an award-worthy performance, puts together something rarely seen on screen with so many intricate and tumultuous storylines. Efron is capable of tapping into something that I don’t believe anybody foresaw him being able to call upon in his riveting emotional force that ends the film on a tremendously high note.
The central theme of personal destiny battling against a predestined fate that may be cursed allows the film to dive deeply into the concepts of forced masculinity, familial connection, and generational trauma — all deep, dark, and troubled ideas on their own that together form a powerhouse of thematic storytelling. With editing, sound design, and cinematography to resolutely transcribe such hefty ideas onto the screen, The Iron Claw is without a doubt one of the most potent films of the year and deserves loftier recognition. The fatherly perspective alongside that of Kevin, David, Kerry, and Mike, rewards multiple viewings and continually elaborates on the complexities of the underlying themes in a sublime fashion.
The Iron Claw delivers a stunning message of generational power, the impacts of perceived masculinity, and just how hard loss can be. Sean Durkin, along with the magnificent cast, creates an encapsulating story of brotherhood, sport, and family. Much as the signature Von Erich move of the “Iron Claw” comes for you in the ring with unrelenting power, The Iron Claw follows suit and it is sure to leave its mark on you long after the credits roll.
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'The Iron Claw' Review'The Iron Claw' Review
- Transformative Zac Efron performance is top-shelf on every level.
- A heart-wrenching story of grief told authentically.
- Banger '80s needle drops bring the heat!
- It'll make you cry TOO much.
- Skips over some late-stage storylines that could use elaboration.