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  • Writer's pictureKurt Loder

The Iron Claw: The family that fights together

A24 Zac Efron stars as Kevin Von Erich, the last surviving son of the Von Erich brothers.

Everybody has their own opinion about professional wrestling. Actually, most people probably have the same opinion: It’s fake. I like director Sean Durkin’s response to this ancient aspersion in a recent interview with Jordan Hoffman for The Messenger. “All entertainment is fake,” Durkin said. “It can be predetermined what’s going to happen in the match, but that doesn’t matter when you are putting on a show.”

Durkin’s new movie, “The Iron Claw,” ushers him into the small company of filmmakers who’ve set compelling stories in the wrestling world. The best-known of these pictures is surely “The Wrestler,” Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 dark dive into a character called Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a man 20 years past his grappling prime who’s barely making ends meet on the has-been circuit in darkest New Jersey. “The Wrestler” was cheaply shot on 16mm (a resourceful creative strategy) and enriched with top-tier performances by Mickey Rourke, who won an Oscar nomination for his performance in the role of Randy, and Marisa Tomei, who plays his stripper girlfriend Cassidy, a woman likewise—and maybe even more heartbreakingly—over the hill.

“The Wrestler” captures the grim seediness of the small-time wrestling scene with indelible detail. Another wrestling film—Stephen Merchant’s 2019 “Fighting with My Family”—took a biopic approach that anticipated “The Iron Claw.” Merchant’s movie focused on a real-life English wrestling family and its most famous member, the female WWE champion Paige (a blast-off performance by Florence Pugh). Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the scion of a notable wrestling clan himself, had a small part in the picture and was also one of its producers. This was a world that’s real.

“The Iron Claw” is even more of a family movie, in the best possible way. In charting the ups and downs and many unexpected setbacks that rain down on the Von Erich family, a multi-generational wrestling enterprise, the picture gives off a warm glow of filial devotion, which is its real subject. The story is set mainly in the 1980s and is told through the eyes of the family’s second-born son, Kevin, played with great emotional delicacy by Zac Efron, who’s impressively muscled-up for the role and, like the rest of the lead actors, resoundingly adept at the repertoire of rope jumps and body-slamming that constitute the wrestling canon.

The hook of the story is the Von Erichs’ “curse”—a never-ending string of personal and professional disasters that kept them from climbing to the top of their chosen game. Things started going wrong for the family with the drowning of first-born son Jack Jr., at the age of 6. After that, driven on by their incessantly demanding father, Fritz (Holt McCallany), a former wrestler who never made the top rank himself, the Von Erich boys become totally committed to one another and to their craft, which requires endless rehearsals and physical workouts. As Fritz’s enthusiasm for Kevin’s championship prospects inevitably wanes, he begins to assess each of his other sons’ respective possibilities.

Unfortunately, life led the Von Erichs down a dark path. One of the sons died of gastroenteritis, another was felled by an incapacitating injury and three others committed suicide. Through it all, their father continued calling for more sweat and determination in the hope that they might still somehow prevail. It’s a dream that grows ever more difficult to share, but even after he’s stopped totally buying into it, Kevin can’t give up on it either.

That the movie never sinks into melodramatic murk is a credit to Efron’s careful skill and to the high wattage of Lily James, who plays a sunny young fan named Pam (the herald of a new generation of wrestling Von Erichs). The picture is also illuminated by gripping performances from Jeremy Allen White (of “Shameless”) as brother Kerry, and from Maura Tierney as the family’s unhappily repressed matriarch. Also lighting things up is the movie’s hurtling stunt work, most of it actually done by the actors (a fact made evident in the director’s long takes). Hope there was a little something extra in their pay packets at shoot’s end.


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