Filmmaker Sean Durkin is interested in exploring the dynamics of dysfunctional families, especially those with domineering, controlling, or insecure father figures. In her 2011 directorial debut, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the family became a cult hit; John Hawkes played a Charles Manson-like figure. In the semi-autobiographical “The Nest” (2020), Jude Law plays a pathologically lying dude whose drive to maintain appearances nearly destroys his family.
The patriarch in Durkin’s latest film, “Iron Claw,” is also obsessed with controlling and maintaining his family’s image of strong masculinity. But this is a true story; The story of the Von Erich clan, a wrestling dynasty that dominated the ring in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s an almost impossibly devastating story of young men buckling under the expectations of their boys’ demanding father, Fritz (Holt McCallany), who serves as coach, mentor, employer, and overseer of a Texas wrestling promotion.
Durkin has wanted to make a movie about the Von Erichs for as long as he’s wanted to make movies since he was a kid obsessed with wrestling. He applies his signature sensibility to this epic melodrama, condensed in places to handle the size and scope of this sprawling American tragedy, but it’s no less impressive.
Zac Efron plays Kevin Von Erich in a great piece of casting, and this is Efron’s best on-screen performance yet. He carries an innate sweetness, a sense of innocence and innocence, which serves to portray him as the protective eldest brother and contrasts with his large physique. His caring, good-natured nature also goes against Fritz’s demanding expectations, demanding that his sons wear a mask of stoic machismo at all times.
Durkin introduces the thematic backbone of “Iron Claw” as he enters Von Erich’s house; While the brothers argue over a big breakfast, Fritz lists his favorite sons. The camera cuts quickly from a framed family photo to a gun display, from religious iconography to sports trophies, telling us everything we need to know about this American tale of violence and spirituality, rendered with Shakespearean poignancy.
Fritz wants to protect and support his children through sports; Their mother, Doris (Maura Tierney), trusts Jesus to take care of her sons. Neither of them take on the task, but the group of brothers take care of each other, especially Kevin, who tries to make it big in wrestling for his father, but whose petty rebellion against Fritz gets in the way of survival.
“Iron Claw” is a bloody and emotionally devastating film, but it starts out as a thrilling 80s sports game. Kevin is never happier than when he’s with his siblings: David (Harris Dickinson), Mike (Stanley Simons), a lanky high school rocker with little interest in sports, and returning track superstar Kerry (Jeremy Allen White). He returned home from Olympic training camp after the United States withdrew from the 1980 Summer Games. All Kevin needs to be content is football and family barbecues, but he is tasked with carrying on the wrestling legacy started by his father, who passed on his signature move, the forehead grab called the Iron Claw.
Durkin portrays 1980s Texas in finely tuned detail, and there’s plenty of fun to be had at the Sportatorium, with carefully recreated matches, profane rivalries, swaggering intros to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” When Kevin, David and Kerry wrestle as a team, there is a beauty in the dance of their bodies rising from the top rope, moving in unison with each other; their instincts have been honed by a lifetime of play, competition and training.
The wrestling here is choreographed by former professional wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr. What Durkin does is a brutal ballet. It shows us both the structure of the sport and the literal destruction of bodies inside and outside the ring. It manages to depict wrestling with lyrical poetry, while still retaining the over-the-top theatricality (Aaron Dean Eisenberg stands out as the flamboyant Ric Flair) and its inherent danger that makes it so entertaining.
Efron embodies all of these conflicting expressions in his role as Kevin, a naive too used to the cruelties of life, a wounded brother who clings on to his identity with everything he can, a wounded brother who can only express his futile frustrations using his incredibly sculpted body and body. the tools he was taught.
After all, “Iron Claw” is a ghost story; The story of a family haunted by the people they lost and their responsibilities in these deaths. This is so much more than melodrama; a myth-making on a grand but intimate scale, a film that attempts to express a small part of the Von Erich legend and does beautifully justice to Kevin’s personal journey.
“Iron Claw” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for language, suicide, some sexuality and drug use)
Running time: 2:10
How to watch: In theaters December 22