Movie Curiosities: The Iron Claw

Oh, great. It’s gonna be another one of THOSE years.

Once again, the studios in their infinite wisdom have overbooked the last week of the year. A flood of awards contenders crammed in under the wire, with last-minute limited releases spilling over into the January wide releases. Too many movies for anyone to keep track of and too few box office dollars to go around. Not that anyone cares, since these films were made for Oscar gold, rather than box office green, but I digress.

So here I am playing another round of “multiplex grab bag”. Tonight’s winner is The Iron Claw, brought to us by writer/producer/director Sean Durkin. The same guy who made a powerful debut statement for himself and Elizabeth Olsen with Martha Marcy May Marlene. And after a decade of next to nothing, he’s following up that introspective work of psychological drama with a wrestling biopic.

I am intrigued. Let’s see what we’ve got.

Here we’ve got a movie “inspired by” the Von Erichs, one of the most infamous and storied families in pro wrestling history. The patriarch is Jack “Fritz” Von Erich (Holt McCallany, operating at peak performance within his established wheelhouse), a man who failed at classical music, couldn’t cut it as a football player, and never got his chance at a wrestling title. Instead, he built the World Class Championship Wrestling league out of Dallas and raised his sons to be professional athletes.

  • Jack Jr., the eldest child, died at roughly seven years old.
  • Kevin (Zac Efron, looking like he’s ready to play the first non-CGI Hulk since Ferrigno) is the oldest surviving child and our de facto protagonist.
  • David (Harris Dickinson) may not have as much of Kevin’s raw wrestling talent, but he’s got far more charisma.
  • Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) was set to be a bona fide Olympic athlete, until the USA withdrew from the 1980 Summer Olympics. Thus Kerry went home to join his brothers in the ring instead.
  • Mike (newcomer Stanley Simons) is the runt of the litter, but that’s not saying much because he’s still a giant by most standards. Even so, he’s not really cut out to be a wrestler and tries for a career in music.

Incidentally, the actual youngest Von Erich son, Chris, was omitted from the film entirely. He committed suicide in 1991, and the filmmakers decided that was one tragedy too many. With all due respect to the late Chris Von Erich and his loved ones, I’m afraid I have to agree with that judgment call.

(Side note: Not for nothing, the real Kevin Von Erich and his surviving family have given the film their enthusiastic blessing.)

See, the film is heavily preoccupied with the “Von Erich Curse,” some vague premonition of bad luck in the family. It doesn’t seem to be much of anything at first, but then the back half happens. That’s when shit gets really bad, really fast. And I don’t think a curse has anything to do with it.

It’s obvious from the jump that Fritz Von Erich is a bona fide narcissist. He’s entitled to whatever he wants because he’s the toughest and strongest and meanest S.O.B. on the planet. Everything he ever got, he got on his own with no help from anybody. Everything he ever lost, he got unfairly robbed by somebody else.

So he brought up his kids to get the accolades he always wanted, but never got. He’s always there to share in the victories or claim them outright, but he’s never there for the losses and any failure is solely his children’s fault. Perhaps most importantly, he’s constantly setting his sons against each other in a perpetual fight for his affection.

Fritz Von Erich wants his sons to be self-made men who are tougher and stronger than anyone else, defeating everyone else to claw their way to the top. This is inherently antithetical to the notion of a loving family unit. At one point late in the film, he outright threatens to disown one of his sons if he agrees to sell the WCCW. Because it’s the WCCW that’s Fritz’s most prized and enduring legacy, not his freaking children.

Yet in spite of all that, it’s abundantly clear that the brothers deeply and dearly love each other. There’s rivalry between them, yes, but it’s mostly rivalry with regards to how much Daddy ranks them in order of favorite. Daddy wants them to wrestle so that he can get a belt in the family and be World Heavyweight Champion by proxy, but the boys wrestle for the love of the sport and because it’s something they honestly love doing together.

And then the tragedies start coming.

What’s interesting is that Kevin (our protagonist, remember) was supposed to be the Favorite Son. It was Kevin who was trained and groomed all his life to be the heavyweight champion wrestler of the family. And somehow, it simply never happened. One by one, his brothers rose up the ranks faster than he did.

As a direct result, Kevin is the only one to go through the whole movie relatively intact. It’s Kevin and Fritz who get to watch all the other sons break themselves on their father’s ambitions and expectations. Not to get too deep into spoilers, but I’ve already mentioned the seven-year-old boy who died offscreen and the omitted brother who killed himself. All the other deaths are on a sliding scale between those two, all horrifically gruesome.

The difference, of course, is that Fritz has no capacity for shame or self-reflection. Loss only makes him more stubborn, more spiteful, and more determined to push his remaining sons harder to bring home more trophies. And anyway, it’s not like he’s ever going to die in the ring so long as he has another son to throw in there.

Kevin, on the other hand, has to watch his brothers die one by one. Kevin comes to realize all too well that sooner or later, it’ll be his turn to literally work himself into the grave for the sake of a father who loves glory more than he loves family. Which means that Kevin’s got a choice to make.

Complicating matters is Pam (Lily James), the love interest who quickly becomes Kevin’s wife and the mother of his children. It’s an open question as to whether Kevin can be a better father than his own dad ever was, and how many of his kids’ days (or grandkids’ days) Kevin will ever get to see. Yes, Pam could give Kevin a kind of lifeline, but Fritz is such an overpowering presence in his sons’ lives that it’s unclear how or if any of them can get out from under him. Moreover, Kevin was born and raised to be a wrestler — what else is he and what else can he do if he walks away from that career?

Though again, it’s a distinct possibility that Kevin may eventually be brutally injured past the point of a viable wrestling career. So maybe it’s best to find out what else he can do while quitting is still an option, rather than a necessity.

All of this is heartbreakingly portrayed by a powerhouse cast that’s firing on all cylinders and inhumanly jacked in every possible way. It certainly helps that Durkin is such a phenomenal director that the worst of each tragedy happens offscreen, yet each new disaster somehow lands just as hard as if we’d seen every detail up close. Major kudos are also due to the soundtrack, which is loaded with classic rock from the late ’70s and early ’80s. We got Rush and Blue Oyster Cult and Tom Petty, with a little bit of John Denver thrown in for variety’s sake. I know I’m partial to the kind of stuff my father raised me on, but this is a legit fantastic soundtrack.

As to the nitpicks, I’m sorry to say the female cast is rather lacking. I love Lily James and she’s doing the best she can with what she has, but her whole romance arc is so rushed and Pam has so little definition or purpose outside that arc that James sadly doesn’t have much to work with. And she still comes off better than the Von Erich matriarch (played by Maura Tierney), who could just as easily be replaced by a crucifix for all difference she makes. Little wonder all the other in-laws got omitted from the film entirely, if this was all the space that could be made for Kevin’s wife and mom.

I also take some issue with the resolution. Yes, it’s genuinely compelling to watch Kevin struggle with his place in life, wondering how and whether he can get out from under his father’s control and whether he can make a sustainable life for himself without a wrestling career. But when those answers do arrive, they come far too quickly and easily. The climax is a bit weak, is all I’m saying. Then again, if the climax seems weak after all the heartbreaking horrific shit that came before, I suppose that’s not saying much.

Overall, The Iron Claw is a strong piece of work. It’s deeply poignant and supremely heartbreaking how the film approaches the topics of ambition, competition, and family. The wrestling sequences are great fun, the soundtrack is all aces, and the actors are all turning in top-shelf performances even when they’re playing weaker characters.

I don’t know if it’s enough to stand out in a packed field of Oscar contenders. Even so, this is absolutely a film to watch, and it’s sure to be a career-changer for Zac Efron in particular. Don’t let it pass you by.

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