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A while back, there was a critic who spoke online about being rejected by an organization. The reason: He put too much himself into the reviews. The notion of this seems baffling. Movies, television shows, novels, and even music impact us partially due to life experiences. Asking someone to rebel against cinematic connection seems criminal. But with The Iron Claw, the urge to rebel was strong.

Back in the 2000s, this writer had a best friend. In 2006, his brother died unexpectedly. A year later, the other brother (my best friend) also died. Two brothers went within a year and a half. Easily one of the most devastating experiences. And as much pain as this writer felt, the emotion the parents felt… It’s just unfathomable. 

Because of these events, upon first watch, this reviewer was not ready to accept what The Iron Claw had to offer. The Von Erichs have a story as unbelievably tragic as the one outlined above. But the Von Erichs remain legends not because of the tragic tale, but because of the brotherly love they brought to the stage. And The Iron Claw powerfully honors their legacy.

The Iron Claw: the story

The film, written and directed by Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Maylene), centers on the Von Erich brothers. The powerhouse family that made a name for themselves in the World Class Championship Wrestling.

When the film begins, we are in the past, and we get a strong sense of who runs the show in the family. The father, former wrestler Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), greets his wife Doris (Maura Tierney) with an expensive car. This purchase, he explains, is to symbolize ambition. Instead, it feels impulsive. The Von Erich brothers are still children and can sense unease between their parents. Fritz conveys things have been hard, but he knows their luck is about to change.  

The story then shifts to the 1980s. The brothers are now grown. The story mainly revolves around Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron), a towering and muscular athlete with an extremely soft demeanor. He lives with his brothers in a remote house in Texas. These brothers include David Von Erich (Harris Dickinson), Mike Von Erich (Stanley Simons), and the famous Kerry Von Erich (Jeremy Allen White).

Much like the film’s cold opening, we get further acquainted with Fritz as he explains to his sons that he wants them to continue his legacy. Instead of anyone else’s plans, Fritz wants to make wrestling a family business; a decision they are happy to comply with because they want to please their father. 

For the majority of the first section of the film, we dwell on the brotherly love of the Von Erichs. While sibling rivalry is present, so is friendship. Even if one brother gets favored over the other by their father, jealousy or not, they are tender toward one another in their envy.

The Iron Claw
Image of the Von Erich brothers in happier times in The Iron Claw. (A24)

At the same time, they celebrate each other’s wins. But throughout the introduction, there is a discussion of a family curse. “The Von Erich curse,” Kevin calls it, while on a date with his soon-to-be wife, Pam (Lily James). Similar to the true story, the brothers begin to find enormous success. Then, inexplicably, tragic things begin to unfold. In the wrong hands, a basic filmmaker would leave the “family curse” aspect ambiguous. But in Durkin’s screenplay, he interrogates the root cause.

The Von Erichs: wrestling with a family legacy

The Iron Claw puts the term “coincidence” on trial. As tragedy after tragedy takes shape, the screenplay does not shy away from placing blame. And from this writer’s knowledge, the wrestling community blames the same person. In these moments, we find the story at its most brutal. As viewers, we see the strings on the brothers as they, like puppets, keep being pushed into worse situations. We are spectators to the abuse of a group of siblings, and we have no control over the master of ceremonies. 

Because of this, The Iron Claw takes a more profound meaning. This is not just an iconic wrestling move created by the worst Von Erich but a metaphor for the looming hand tearing down the entire family for one person’s benefit. The squeezing claw of manipulation drains the life force from the Von Erich siblings until there is nothing left for them to give. 

Zac Efron delivers a career-high performance

The High School Musical actor gained a lot of weight, but it’s the emotional baggage he carries that impresses. The film has a warmth amidst its harrowing backdrop. The performances are earnest, with a tender approach to each brother.

Most of all, Zac Efron climbs to a career-high with The Iron Claw. There are scenes where Efron shows physical anger while simultaneously being vulnerable. Efron deftly balances both qualities in such a way that breaks new ground in his skill set.

The Iron Claw
Zac Efron as Kevin Von Erich in the ring in The Iron Claw (A24)

The other portrayals of the Von Erichs rise to the same quality. Jeremy Allen White (The Bear) certainly does not share the same appearance as the enormous Kerry Von Erich. The decision seems intentional, as real-life footage plays in the background (often out of focus). Durkin’s goal is to achieve the essence of Kerry rather than the stature; an objective Allen tackles successfully.

While Harris Dickinson quietly steals the room as David, Stanley Simons as Mike truly rips the heart out. The role requires a transformation from the young talent, and it’s arguably one of the most haunting performances of this year.

The brotherly nature of the film finds illuminated affection from cinematographer Mátyás Erdély. Sequences are lit with the colors of the Fall, such as brown and orange temperatures. The choice adds to the family nature of the film. And when the emotions are cold, disparaging, and angry, the texture of the photography compliments the juxtaposition in equal measure.

The Iron Claw is devastatingly powerful

At its core, The Iron Claw is a heartbreaking reminder to protect, cherish, and love the family (or extended family) within reach. In the case of the Von Erich brothers, being loved by a blood relative, guardian, parent, etc, does not mean the actions match the feeling. It’s a devastating, powerful experience, but be prepared for numerous gut punches.

To bring this full circle, the film’s final moments made this reviewer feel things from a long time ago. Those who wish to stay away from spoilers feel free to exit. But there is a moment toward the finale where Kevin sees his boys playing as friends and realizes the treasure of what he once had has been lost. All this writer can say is, “I miss my brothers too, Kevin.”

A24’s The Iron Claw releases in theaters December 22, 2023, and is coming soon to Apple TV. Are you planning to watch this one? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.

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John Dotson

Born and raised in Texas, John Dotson has been a film pundit for over 10 years, writing reviews and entertainment coverage at various online outlets. His favorite thing in the world is discussing movies with others who also love the art form.

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