The Iron Claw tells the heartbreaking true story of a tight-knit family’s destructive spiral towards unbearable tragedy. Jack Adkisson, better known as professional wrestler Fritz Von Erich, pushed his beloved sons into the ring with devastating consequences. His fierce determination, merciless training regime, and uncompromising vision fueled their brutal quest for greatness at any cost. They pay a horrific price for glory in a gut-wrenching film that serves as a dire warning. Children can’t be responsible for their parents’ failures. Blind ambition and the unquenchable desire for affirmation leads to certain doom.
In the late 1950s, Fritz (Holt McCallany) riles up a packed gymnasium with his villainous charade. He toys with the audience before setting his sight on finishing an already beaten opponent. Fritz bounces off the ropes for a savage takedown. He raises his right arm for everyone to see. The Iron Claw crushes a sweaty skull into submission. Fans roar with glee and disgust as Fritz stands victorious.
Outside in the parking lot, Fritz shows his pregnant wife Doris (Maura Tierney) a fancy new car. She’s aghast he’s spent money on something so frivolous when they’re living in a trailer. His young sons listen as Fritz swears the car is a worthwhile investment. He needs to craft a successful image to promote his career. Fritz promises Doris they’ll all be living in a splendid home.
Zac Efron Stuns as Kevin Von Erich
In Texas almost two decades later, the shredded Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) gets up for his morning exercise routine. He nudges his younger brother, David (Harris Dickinson), in the adjoining bed, to get motivated. Kevin runs until sweat drips down his glistening body. He then heads to the gym on the ranch to lift weights. Kevin, David, their middle brother Mike (Stanley Simons), and Fritz eat a hearty breakfast that Doris has dutifully prepared. Kevin has an important match later.
Pam (Lily James) watches excitedly as the handsome and muscular Kevin wins the Texas men’s wrestling title. She waits outside for an autograph and more. The shy and reserved Kevin smiles sheepishly when Pam asks him out on a date. That night at home, Fritz and Doris congratulate their son on a great performance. Mike, who plays the guitar and sings in a local band, has a paid gig at a nearby university. Doris shuts him down immediately. Fritz’s emphatic “no” follows when Kevin and David try to defend Mike. Their mother had spoken. A chorus of “Yes Father” follows in strict obedience from his sons. Fritz makes it clear, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), the youngest and a champion discus thrower preparing for the Olympics, is his favorite. But that could change if Kevin, and maybe David, have what it takes to challenge for the NWA championship.
The Iron Claw establishes the Von Erich family dynamics as its first priority. Fritz was a dictator with Doris’ firm support. Their sons did exactly as told, without hesitation. Kevin and his brothers weren’t rebels. They marched like soldiers to Fritz’s command. Nothing mattered more than family and wrestling. Every fiber of their being was in service to that hierarchy. The Von Erichs had been deprived of their destinies by jealous haters. The brothers would bring home the belt their father had dreamed of his entire life.
Writer/director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Nest) grips your attention with intriguing subplots. He lifts the curtain behind professional wrestling’s staged theatrics. Scenes of the Von Erich brothers talking trash and hamming it up for television cameras are hilarious. Big personalities fill seats and draw record ratings. Being bombastic was almost as important as physical prowess. A trait the introverted Kevin struggled mightily to master. He loses favor with his father for not having an outgoing personality. There’s no such thing as a quiet and modest wrestling champion. Fritz’s turn towards David as the family savior demoralizes Kevin, but he never stops supporting his brother’s rise.
The Iron Claw has a sobering second act where the pitfalls of fame become apparent. Kevin begins to realize that their father’s unyielding drive has become hurtful. He fears the infamous “Von Erich curse” is coming to haunt them all. His dark premonition proves to be correct. The family reels from a loss that rattles them to the core, but doesn’t dissuade Fritz from applying constant pressure. Doris, who shields her grief with religious faith, refuses to counter her husband’s obstinacy. Any problems her sons have must be settled between themselves. She’s not a shoulder to cry on or a source of balance. This lack of parental empathy reinforces the brothers’ ill-fated attempts to please them.
Zac Efron, stunning in a nuanced portrayal of sad resilience, and his supporting ensemble brothers, are absolute beasts in the ring. Their muscled physiques get battered, bruised, and bloodied for a questionable cause. The pummeling they receive exacerbates internal and psychological wounds which worsen due to a lack of recourse. The love they have for each other just isn’t enough to prevent disaster.
The Iron Claw will have tears flowing like rivers. You root for the Von Erichs and feel the pain of harrowing losses. Their story is a cautionary tale of flawed ambition. Fame, money, and wrestling belts aren’t worth a family’s demise.
The Iron Claw is a production of Access Entertainment, BBC Film, and House Productions. It will be released theatrically on December 22nd from A24. You can watch the trailer below: