Review: A Wrestling Family Faces Tough Battles Inside the Ring and Out in The Iron Claw

You may question why a film set in the world of professional wrestling in the early 1980s is something you should care about. I would counter by telling you that writer/director Sean Derkin’s The Iron Claw has as much triumph, tragedy, drama, death, bad parenting, raw human emotion, and ghosts of the past as any play Shakespeare ever wrote. The movie is the true story of the inseparable Von Erich brothers. The young men lived under the shadow of their oppressively domineering father/coach Fritz (Holt McCallany) and their passive-aggressive mother Doris (Maura Tierney), wrestling as a team in various combinations as fate and a kind of inevitability chipped away at their numbers over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s. (There were so many deaths in the family, in fact, that Durkin doesn’t even mention one of the brothers, due to time constraints of the film.)

The Von Erich brothers were trained early and hard by Fritz, a wrestling star in his own right with more than a few archaic ideas about what it meant to be a man and a champion. He readily ranks his favorite children, but reminds them that the rankings could change. He sees himself as a dynasty maker, while mother Doris seems more of a facilitator of Fritz’s ideas than a protector of her children’s mental and physical well being. 

Rising to the top of this wrestling family is Kevin (Zac Efron, who is so insanely jacked for this movie he’s almost unrecognizable), who started his career as a solo fighter until eventually Fritz saw value in a family act and had him fight alongside brothers Mike (Stanley Simons) and David (Harris Dickinson, Triangle of Sadness and Beach Rats). Around this time, Kevin also meets the love of his life, Pam (Lily James, somewhat underutilized here but still managing to stand out). The two are soon married, with Pam giving Kevin the love, support, and stability that he never got at home (which may account for him being the only surviving Von Erich to date).

After an unexpected death among the brothers, it's Kerry (Jeremy Allen White, The Bear), an Olympic track and field hopeful, who is pulled into the wrestling family after the United States and other countries boycott the 1980 summer games in Moscow. As the film shows, Kerry goes on to have the most successful solo career of the brothers, but only after a nearly life-ending motorcycle accident that leaves him physically injured and eventually addicted to pain killers. Nothing about the Von Erichs' lives was easy, especially when all they cared about was wrestling and winning. This fact makes Efron’s performance all the more meaningful, because Kevin does manage to find a good life outside of his parents and brothers without completely distancing himself from them; this makes the survivor’s guilt he experiences time and again hurt all the more as the film goes on.

Director Durkin (Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene) not only handles the very human story of this tight-knit family with a combination of empathy and hard truths, but his staging and shooting of the wrestling matches themselves is exceptional, revealing that, although the outcome of the matches may have been scripted to some degree, the wrestling itself was very real and painful and often bloody. I’m sure wrestling fans who perhaps know the story of the Von Erich family are going to appreciate the lengths the filmmaker goes to in order to capture the authenticity of this world. But in order for The Iron Claw to succeed as a piece of art, it needs to draw in the rest of us, and this work certainly accomplishes that thanks to note-perfect performances and a skillfully written screenplay that is relentless in its portrayal of a sports family legacy that is as shameful and tragic as it is immortal. I’m deliberately being somewhat vague about a lot of what goes on in this movie, because for non-wrestling fans, the reveals, like most punches to the gut, are all the more impactful if you don’t see them coming, .

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.