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film review

The Iron Claw

Written and directed by: Sean Durkin

Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White and Holt McCallany

Classification: 18A; 132 minutes

Opens: in theatres Dec. 22

Critic’s Pick

A horror movie body-slammed by the weight of a grimy beyond-the-mat wrestling expose, The Iron Claw is Canadian director Sean Durkin’s latest portrait of domestic miserablism (after 2020′s The Nest) that breaks the bone before it cuts right to it. Intensely dark and depressing – though not without its pressure-valve moments of levity – the based-on-a-true-story film is in the running for the bleakest release of the holiday season. Which is exactly Durkin’s point. This is a picture as severe as the real-life generational abuse that its director is chronicling, even if a few false steps mean that The Iron Claw ultimately lands as a technical knock-out.

When the film opens in the late ‘60s, Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) is a wrestler in Texas who specializes in playing the heel. He doesn’t mind being painted as the villain, so long as he can support his growing family, including his religious wife Doris (Maura Tierney), who appears to have never watched her husband in a match, and his two young sons. Fighting his opponents in the ring and a magnificently toxic persecution complex outside of it, Fritz instills his brood with the notion that the entire world is against the Von Erichs –and the only way to prove them wrong is to fight. And so that’s what the family does, decade over decade.

Flash-forward to the eighties, and the Von Erich clan is now a wrestling dynasty, with second-eldest son Kevin (Zac Efron) leading the charge alongside younger brothers David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) and even the more artistically minded baby bro Mike (Stanley Simons). Pushed hard – and then harder – by their father, the siblings muscle their way into a life of fame, if not quite fortune. Their battle scars, though, are earned mostly in service of the grandest tournament of all, which is of course the fight for Fritz’s affection.

Anyone who has read or watched anything about wrestling outside whatever the WWE broadcasts might have already heard about the Von Erichs and their many devastating falls from grace. And if the name isn’t familiar, then you’ll certainly know that the wrestling industry is one built on bruised bodies and crushed souls. If you didn’t learn about the addictions and abuses suffered from pro wrestlers in such harrowing documentaries as 1999′s Beyond the Mat or Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring, then there was Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler to underline just how terrible a world existed for those who step inside the squared circle. Hell, just look at Hulk Hogan. Look at him! (And if the litigious Hulkster is reading this, it’s all in good fun, bro.)

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But what Durkin does here is use wrestling as a canvas for intergenerational rot. No matter what profession Fritz might have chosen to go into, it seems that the monstrous patriarch would have found a way to use it to ruin the lives of his own children. This might be why the film operates best not in the wrestling stadium, but inside the homey kitchen, gun-decorated living room and wide open fields of the Von Erich ranch. This is where Fritz’s true power over his brood extends, allowing a minor confrontation during breakfast to seep into the sweaty locker-rooms and blood-stained rings later that evening. For Durkin, the big Saturday-night wrestling matches the Von Erichs live for are just encore performances of the horror shows playing live every night at home, for an audience of one: Fritz.

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The Iron Claw.Elevation Pictures

Not that Durkin and his team fail to get the sport’s details right. There is an authenticity to the world of The Iron Claw that feels built on a genuine love and appreciation of wrestling, even if Durkin has, somewhere along the way, become greatly disillusioned by it. There isn’t an ounce of winking kitschiness here, either, which could have easily undermined the actual Von Erich story.

Speaking of which: Although the many rounds of tragedy that Durkin puts the family through might seem so outrageously grim as to border on ridiculous, it is all mostly, sadly true. It turns out that the filmmaker neglected to include one other Von Erich brother in his film because detailing what happened to youngest son Chris would have been just one screw-turn too many for audiences to accept.

After scoring perfect performances from Jude Law and Carrie Coon in The Nest, Durkin hits a few casting jackpots here, too, including The Bear breakout White as the committed but reckless Kerry, the reliably tremendous Tierney as Doris (doing a lot with an underwritten role), and newcomer Simons as the tender-hearted Mike. But it is McCallany as Fritz who walks away with the show time and again. Sporting a mean buzz cut and intimidating paunch, there is something about the way the actor, best known until now for his far kinder character on Netflix’s Mindhunter, carries his weight that suggests a highly controlled kind of menace. Every time the actor steps into a scene, the air seems to get a degree frostier.

McCallany’s indomitable presence is that much more impressive when shoved against Efron, who despite bulking up to a frightening degree to play Kevin – every sinew of muscle seems ready to burst – just cannot handle the emotional range that is asked of him.

The actor has an easy, breezy chemistry with Lily James, who gives wonderful twang to Kevin’s strong-minded wife, Pam, but when Efron must come up against the messier layers of the Von Erich lifestyle (which happens about every three minutes), you can see every planned twitch and tic, as nakedly rehearsed as any pro wrestling match. There is one late-film scene in particular, in which Kevin breaks down after one tribulation too many, where Efron’s sobs betray of the worst kind of artificial blubbering. But that’s life in the ring: win some, lose some.

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