The true story of the Von Erich family is a story of great success that is undercut by great tragedy. In the early 80s, the Von Erich brothers became huge stars in the world of competitive wrestling, only to experience unspeakable hardships in the midst of it. It is a story that almost feels like a Greek tragedy brought to life, as the accolades and admiration that the brothers achieve is undone by a fatal flaw. In Sean Durkin's The Iron Claw, we see the story of the Von Erich family's rise and fall, and the great pressure that the brothers were put under by their domineering father. The film itself is a heartrending, cathartic account of the Von Erich brothers' time in the spotlight, and is truly incredible across the board.
During the heyday of professional wrestling in the 1980s, the Von Erich brothers rise to prominence, and strive for glory in the ring. Living in the shadow of their father and coach, Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), the brothers are pushed to the brink in order to succeed. At the beginning of the film, Kevin (Zac Efron) is very successful on the local wrestling circuit, and his brother David (Harris Dickinson) is preparing to make his debut in a tag-team match. Meanwhile, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) is training to compete in the Olympics, and Mike (Stanley Simons) has dreams of being a musician, which his father disapproves of. Throughout the film, the brothers become successful as wrestlers, but they also experience several tragedies in the process. Amidst all this, the brothers still try to carry on the Von Erich legacy, and make wrestling history.
Sean Durkin is an exceptional filmmaker, especially when it comes to making realistic films that involve difficult truths. His debut film, Martha Marcy May Marlene details the life of a young woman who has been in a cult for most of her life, and his follow up, The Nest, examines a marriage on the rocks. Durkin's ability to explore the psychological and emotional effects of these types of situations makes him well-adept to making The Iron Claw, as the story of the Von Erichs is filled with difficult subject matter that not just any filmmaker can handle. Durkin handles the tragedies that the Von Erich family experienced in a way that is truthful, and allows the impact of each individual loss and hardship to land firmly. On top of that, these moments ripple all throughout the film, and Durkin maintains this specific tone of triumph and tragedy impeccably well. We as viewers truly feel what the Von Erichs are feeling throughout, making this one of the most intense and affecting films I've seen in a long time.
Durkin's direction is so strong, as he has a strong hand on the more emotional portions of the film, and also captures the thrill and excitement of the wrestling matches. He is so assured on all fronts of this film, and it is easily some of his best work to date. He keeps the film rolling at a steady pace, and makes every scene sing. He feels so connected to the story, which helps it feel all the more genuine. He approaches the story with great respect for the Von Erichs, and he truly honors their legacy with this film. He also does a great job with the film's script, although the omission of the youngest Von Erich brother, Chris is a strange choice. I can understand Durkin's rationale behind not including him (he claims it would just be too much tragedy in one film and that it probably wouldn't have been made otherwise), but it is still puzzling. Despite that, he tells the story of the Von Erich's in a tight, straightforward way that doesn't let up until its final moments.
It takes a talented cast to portray the close-knit nature of the Von Erich brothers, and this film certainly assembles one of the year's strongest ensembles. Each actor fits their respective role so perfectly, and they all work together so brilliantly. Much has been said about Zac Efron, and deservedly so, as this is undoubtedly the best performance of his career. He has this haunted quality to way he plays Kevin Von Erich, and acts as if the weight of the world is constantly on his shoulders. You can feel the pain he feels at various points in the film, and you can also feel the strong love he has for his family. This is even more impressive due to how subtle a lot of his acting choices are. Sure, he has some of the film's biggest acting moments, but it is what he does with some of the smaller moments that really spoke to me. An early scene where his love interest, Pam (Lily James) embraces him is a prime example of this, as he has this expression that says something so specific about his character in that moment that carries throughout the rest of the film. It is such a small moment in the grand scheme of things, but it really stood out to me. Perhaps his finest moment is in the final scene, in which he is watching his sons play together at their house. You can feel everything he is feeling in that moment, and it helps the film end on a powerful final note. This is a phenomenal performance from Efron, and is easily one of my favorites of the year.
Jeremy Allen White is also incredible as Kerry Von Erich. From the moment he first appears, you can feel a similar weight on his shoulders that Efron has, but you can feel him pushing himself to be the best he can possibly be. In a sense, Efron's Kevin has resigned himself to his fate, while White's Kerry is trying to run from it. You can feel the pressure that he is under, and his drive to overcome it. He tries to stay strong all through out the film, but it is the scenes where he starts to buckle where he really knocks it out of the park. Harris Dickinson gets the most charismatic role in the film as David Von Erich, and he has such an alluring screen presence here. He pops in every scene he's in, and a scene where he does some trash talk is one of the highlights of the film. Stanley Simons is on the opposite end of the spectrum, as he has one of the more quieter roles of the film. As Mike Von Erich, he sticks out from the rest of the brothers as the most reluctant to take up wrestling. He feels out of place from the rest of the family, but you can feel the love that he has for his brothers and vice-versa. The dynamics between the brothers is what fuels the film, and all four actors are so excellent in this film, both together and individually.
I also must bring up Maura Tierney and Holt McCallany, both of whom are doing some of their best work here. Tierney is pushed to the side a little, but she has such command when she appears. There is a scene where she stands in front of a black funeral dress and talks about how she doesn't want to wear it that broke my heart, and she has a seething energy in some moments that radiates in certain moments. McCallany is outstanding all throughout the film, and is such an imposing figure on the film. As Fritz, the patriarch of the Von Erich family, he is demanding, angry, and constantly pushes his sons to achieve the type of stardom he was never able to attain. There are little to no redeeming qualities about Fritz, and McCallany plays his harsh and callous nature so well. I also really appreciated Lily James's performance, as she is somewhat of the glue that holds this film together. She is somewhat of an outsider in the film, and she brings a level of warmth to the film as well. She represents a refuge for the character of Kevin, and the romance between the two is depicted in a rather sweet, yet realistic way. James is an actor that I have liked but have wanted to see more from, and her work here delivers on this.
The Iron Claw is one of the most heartbreaking and astonishing films of the past decade, and is a stunning display of talent on every level. It tells the story of the Von Erich family in a direct and impactful way that allows every emotion to be felt so strongly. It is such a heavy film, but it is also a film that deserves to be seen. It is one of the best films I've seen all year, and it is honestly hard to put into words just how much it affected me. It is one I would highly recommend to just about anyone, as it is such a powerful story, and it is told so incredibly.