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The Iron Claw review: A restrained, sobering sports drama

The Von Erich brothers sit on a fence together in The Iron Claw.
The Iron Claw
“The Iron Claw is a deeply felt, heartrending drama that benefits from a handful of unforgettable performances given by its stars.”
  • Zac Efron's quietly heartbreaking star performance
  • Harris Dickinson and Lily James' scene-stealing supporting turns
  • An unsettling, effective first half
  • Several questionable creative decisions
  • Pacing issues that plague its third act
  • A few underdeveloped characters

The story of the Von Erich family is well-known among professional wrestling fans. Often regarded as one of the most tragic stories in wrestling history, it’s a tale that is full of so much trauma, self-destruction, and grief that capturing the full scope of it in just two-and-a-half hours would be a difficult task for any film. To its credit, The Iron Claw mostly succeeds at doing just that. The film is, in many ways, exactly the movie that wrestling fans have been both eagerly anticipating and dreading.

With its doom-laden, black-and-white opening images, The Iron Claw efficiently sets up the familial horror and tragedy to come, but not so obviously that the film’s bright, sun-soaked, and deceptively peaceful first act isn’t able to lull you into a false sense of security. When writer-director Sean Durkin repeatedly pulls the rug out from under you in its second half, he doesn’t always do so as effectively as he could have. What the writer-director nonetheless delivers is a sports drama unlike any other — one that thoroughly justifies both the anticipation and hesitation long felt by those familiar with the twists and turns of its painful story.

The men of the Von Erich family play football together in The Iron Claw.

For reasons that will only be immediately clear to those who know the full extent of the real-life events that inspired it, The Iron Claw closely follows Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron), the son of Fritz Von Erich (a perfectly cast Holt McCallany), a stern and obtuse former professional wrestler who has pushed his dreams onto every one of his children. Following its black-and-white opening sequence, which briefly traps viewers in the sweaty brutality of one of Fritz’s matches, the film picks up in the late 1970s when Kevin is in the midst of his own rise through the professional wrestling world.

His younger brothers, David (Harris Dickinson) and Kerry (The Bear star Jeremy Allen White), aren’t far behind him. All three boys are eager to make their father proud and bring the kind of professional wrestling renown to their family that Fritz never did. Their youngest brother, Mike (Stanley Simons), is the only one among them who is resistant to Fritz’s demands — favoring a career in music over a life spent fighting in the ring. Mike’s desire to walk his own path, combined with David, Kerry, and Kevin’s shared interest in following in their father’s footsteps, create the emotionally turbulent foundation for The Iron Claw’s story of generational trauma and toxic masculinity.

All of the film’s ideas are funneled through the perspective of Efron’s Kevin, whose in-ring skills don’t measure up in Fritz’s eyes to either Kerry’s Olympic-level athleticism or David’s unparalleled sense of showmanship. As The Iron Claw’s naïve, yet observant lead, Efron is more subdued here than he’s ever been before. In the entirety of the film’s runtime, Durkin only allows Efron three chances to let his character’s intense emotions boil over, which means that he’s forced to communicate the effects of Fritz’s unrealistic demands and unemotional parenting style as silently as possible. Efron, fortunately, rises to the occasion — delivering a deeply felt, clear-eyed performance that mines gold out of the juxtaposition between the pain in his eyes and the impressiveness of his wrestling physique.

Lily James looks at Zac Efron in The Iron Claw.

Efron emerges as The Iron Claw’s greatest asset, but Durkin is no stranger to exploring the kind of toxic masculinity that is not only at the center of his latest film, but also the cause of all of its numerous tragedies. As was the case in both Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Nest, though, Durkin’s handling of the subject proves to be alternately too restrained and too on the nose. (One moment late in the film when a young character insists to Efron’s Kevin that it’s OK to cry doesn’t land nearly as well as Durkin intends.) The filmmaker’s decision to excise one of the Von Erich brothers from The Iron Claw and play fast and loose with other facts of its real-life story causes a few issues throughout the drama as well.

Its third act, in particular, suffers from uneven pacing throughout, as Durkin tries unsuccessfully to chart a difficult chapter in Kevin’s life while also setting up the events of its shattering final minutes. Despite how effectively its first half paves the way for its second, The Iron Claw never achieves a constant sense of forward momentum, which hampers it a bit and prevents it from achieving the sense of operatic tragedy that its story warrants. The film comes thrillingly close to emerging as a full-fledged American epic. The fact that it falls short of reaching those kinds of heights, however, doesn’t mean that it’s an entirely unsuccessful effort.

Zac Efron holds up a gold wrestling title belt in The Iron Claw.

On the contrary, The Iron Claw is one of the year’s most affecting dramas. It’s a film that dives headfirst into a world that has rarely been explored on-screen and offers some compelling reasons for why it’s been such a constant source of pain and death over the years. With Efron as its lead and standout supporting performers like Dickinson, McCallany, and White surrounding him, The Iron Claw also achieves a level of emotional introspection that might, on paper, seem antithetical to its sweeping, relentlessly devastating story. Lily James, meanwhile, gives a luminous performance as Pam, Kevin’s strong-willed and empathetic love interest, which makes it easier for the film to avoid wallowing too long in the unavoidable misery of its back half.

Behind the camera, Durkin prevents The Iron Claw from devolving into the kind of emotionally grueling experience that it could have been. He doesn’t linger too long on any of the film’s most horrifying moments and presents the weight of them as matter-of-factly as he can. The movie’s overall effect, consequently, isn’t so much assaultive as it is disorienting. Some may consider that a failure of the film, others a mercy. Either way, The Iron Claw may not hit with the same force as a match-winning frog splash, but it does connect.

The Iron Claw hits theaters on Friday, December 22.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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