Many scoff at the idea of wrestling as a legitimate sport. (Vegas doesn’t take odds on any match so there’s the proof for any doubters.) The new film THE IRON CLAW, based upon the true story of a family toiling in the 1970s World Class Championship league, never shies away from the fakery. However, to dismiss pro wrestlers as not being athletes is unfair. This film demonstrates just how much it takes to become a pro wrestler – not only the required strength, dexterity, musculature, and coordination, but ambition and heart too. Quite simply, these warriors aren’t far off of any professional athlete and filmmaker Sean Durkin showcases all their hard work and more to make a living in wrestling, including the incredible toll it takes mentally as well as physically.
The Von Erich family was a wrestling dynasty in the 1970s and is the focus of the story here, in and out of the ring. And in both realms, the family is dominated by gruff patriarch and ex-pro wrestler Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany). With his Marine haircut, steely jaw and “my way or the highway” manner, he’s one tough S.O.B. He’s less a dad and more of a coach or even drill sergeant. Fritz, along with his God-fearing wife Doris (Maura Tierney), managed to raise four boys, ensuring that each and everyone of them would follow in their father’s footsteps. Durkin’s story tries for a warts and all presentation of this brood, and most of it is incredibly involving and even moving. It does seem however, that many of the warts that are less flattering, but would have dimensionalized the story for the better, have been left out.
For starters, Fritz came to fame by wrestling in the 50s where he portrayed a villainous character based on a Nazi prototype, even to the point of having Nazi markings on his costume. That was quite daring during that time but such details are not touched upon in this telling. And his signature move – a paralyzing grip entitled “The Iron Claw” – came directly from Nazi propaganda too. It’s not surprising that Durkin would choose not to include such trappings, but it feels like a missed opportunity, particularly in explaining much of Fritz’s bullheadedness.
Perhaps because he played such a bad guy in the ring, Fritz never became the champ he wanted to be. That seems naive considering his persona in the ring, but no matter, the man started his family with a tremendous chip on his shoulder and spent the rest of his life trying to get one of his kids to the top. Even if it met abusing them, crushing their own dreams, and reigning with, yep, an iron fist.
The four sons who he forced to carry on his legacy were Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons). Fritz taught them to be competitive, even with each other, and observing how a simple sit-down to breakfast becomes an opportunity to rate and berate his children plays in the film as both ridiculous, yet par for the course in their household. These kids, with such a hard-riding father and a soft-Christian mom, never really stood a chance at any semblance of a normal childhood.
Still, as competitive and swaggering as the boys could be, following their dad’s lead, Durkin shows us much to like and admire in each of them. Kevin is presented in the film as sweet and buff, almost an angelic man/baby. Kerry seems to be the most natural athlete of all of them, at one time an Olympic hopeful with his discus-throwing ability. David is more brains than brawn and soon learns how to channel that into the ‘acting’ needed for the wrestling world, particularly in hyping up the crowd. And then there is Mike, the youngest, who just wants to be a rock musician, but happily encourages his siblings as they compete for the WCC wrestling belt.
The best part of THE IRON CLAW is this superb ensemble playing off each other so well. Each cast member is memorable and Durkin gives everyone plenty of screen time to make vivid impressions. The kids have pluck, and their banter is often warm and humorous; heck, they even talk back to their dad who needs it. Still, they love him even when they really probably shouldn’t. Kevin idolizes the old man and desperately wants the same dream his father wants for him, but despite his gym rat body confidence, the rest of him is painfully insecure and shy. So much so that when he meets Pam (Lily James) after a match, she is the one who has to ask him out even though she’s giving him clues that would choke a horse. Efron is very effective in this film, using silences and hesitations to create a character that is often weak, but never unlikable.
And with the introduction of Pam, her being a rather cliched movie version of the stalwart, gorgeous girlfriend, one cannot help but wonder if Durkin is pulling other punches too, just like he did with the Nazi background. Was Pam really so understanding and accommodating of the entire Von Erich clan, especially the father? And what drew her to Kevin so? Many such questions feel unanswered here, making moments of the film frustrating and incomplete. James can play both sunny and dark equally well, and she’s someone you always are drawn to because she plays vulnerability as well as any actress today, but her Pam simply feels too good to be true. She’s smart, beautiful, witty and has the patience of Job. Did Durkin feel the need to make her unquestionably loyal so we’d not be so judgmental of this increasingly dysfunctional family and their shenanigans that start to become more and more off-putting?
Without question, Durkin does a wonderful job with so much of the film. He’s terrific with actors and as a brilliant sense of aesthetics, capturing the whole 1970s vibe throughout stellar production values, the soundtrack, and the slightly grainy cinematography that echoes that era. Yet at times, he seems hesitant to show the utter toxicity of Fritz’s hold on his family. Late in the film, it becomes readily apparent as he drives his children to drugs, physical recklessness, and utter endangerment, and yet, Durkin wants us to still cheer on this screwed up brood as wrestlers. But when they all act too much like a collection of ostriches with their heads in the sand, it gets hard to keep cheering.
Pound for pound and beat for beat, THE IRON CLAW has so much going for it. The film is a brutal look at what it takes to be a wrestler, and all of the physical and mental costs it extracts from its athletes. If only more of the genuine dynamics in the family could have been as bluntly and truthfully presented as those scenes in the terrifying ring. It feels, dare I say, a little fake sometimes. And it mars an otherwise superb effort.