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HomeIndustry SectorFilmThe Iron Claw Review: Sean Durkin’s Masterful Von Erichs Drama Avoids Traditional...

The Iron Claw Review: Sean Durkin’s Masterful Von Erichs Drama Avoids Traditional Sports Biopic Tropes

In 2011, Canadian-born filmmaker Sean Durkin showed up at the Sundance Film Festival with the thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, immediately getting the attention of an industry looking for new talent and faces, including that of Elizabeth Olsen, who quickly got on the radar for many casting agents. In the time since then, Durkin only directed one other feature (The Next) as well as a few episodes of the Dead Ringers television series, although to be fair, he also spent many years developing a movie based on Stephen King‘s It.

Durkin has now returned with a movie that is clearly a passion project, telling the story of Dallas, Texas’s wrestling Von Erich family, led by Holt McCallany’s tough patriarch Fritz von Erich. Fritz has four sons whom he would love to bring into the family business. Kevin, played by Zac Efron, is the eldest of the Von Erich brothers, followed by the Olympian Kerry (Jeremy Allen White of The Bear), David (Harris Dickinson), and their youngest brother Mike (Stanley Simons), who is far more interested in writing and playing rock music. Kevin and David are the first to take up wrestling in their father’s Dallas-based “Sportatorium” where World Class Championship Wrestling thrives, though Kevin’s uncompromising father keeps skipping him in terms of promoting his brothers, even as tragedy repeatedly descends upon the family.

Anyone who was a wrestling fan during the ’70s and ’80s is likely to be familiar with the Erichs and Fritz’s signature move from which the film received its title. This was during the times before Vince McMahon‘s WWE (then WWF) was made the dominant force in what’s now called “sports entertainment,” thanks to events like Wrestlemania. Back then, there were different promotions across the country, each with their own territory, with the rise of television becoming an equalizer, especially when it came to inter-faction “wars.” For Fritz, it’s all about having his family win the World Wrestling Championship belt, something that causes great stress, leading to strategy with each son he pushes to go after it.

Harris Dickinson (L) in The Iron Claw (A24)

Besides being one of the strongest ensemble casts of the year that Durkin has assembled, it’s also likely to be one of the most underrated ones. Playing Kevin Von Erich is a career-defining moment for Efron, who has ventured into drama in the past, but who delivers something that not only allows him to disappear into a role where physically he doesn’t look anything like we’ve seen him in the past, but also exploring very

White and Dickinson also bring many layers to their contributions to this story, not only with their physical performances in the ring, but also to the family dynamics. McCallany deserves to be getting as much attention as Efron for playing this dominating father who brings all his sons into the family business, seemingly oblivious to how all the tragedies are affecting them all.

The story of the Von Erichs is quite tragic, made even moreso by Fritz ignoring the signs that his eldest son, Kevin, is struggling just as much as his brothers.It’s also impossible to overlook the performance by Maura Tierney, playing one of only two key females roles in the film, Doris Von Erich, the boys’ mother, who is hit the hardest by the tragedies that befall the family. She’s quite the enigma, because for much of the film, she puts aside her own goals and dreams to support her husband and sons. The Iron Claw also delivers a suitably satisfying love story countering all the tragedy, as Kevin meets Lily James‘ bubbly Pam, who tries to keep Kevin from following into despair over all the horrible events surrounding his family, which has been dubbed “The Curse of the Von Erichs.” Pam’s positive demeanor is critical in keeping The Iron Claw from sinking into a miasma of absolute despair.

Lily James, Zac Efron in The Iron Claw (A24)

Durkin is clearly a lifelong wrestling enthusiast from the way he brings in modern-day wrestlers to play some of the legends from yesteryear, such as the Iron Sheik, but more than anything, it’s Aaron Dean Eisenberg as Hall of Famer Ric Flair, who has remained active up until just a few years back, that will tickle and amuse modern-day wrestling fans.

For whatever reason, this is not the type of movie where below-the-line crafts and creatives stand out, other than the fact that they’re all there to realize Durkin’s vision in recreating a piece of wrestling history. Beyond the make-up and hairstyling used to create period authenticity, the editing by Matthew Hannam is worthy of attention due to its ability to maintain a quick pace between the wrestling sequences and the family drama, but it’s just a solidly crafted film overall.

There is no question that The Iron Claw really should be in this year’s awards conversation, and not even receiving a single Golden Globes nomination for Efron is a true shame, a snub in every sense of the word, but in a season with other sports dramas from filmmakers like Michael Mann (with Ferrari) and George Clooney (The Boys in the Boat), it’s hard to tell if The Iron Claw can stand out, even with the millions and millions of professional wrestling fans flooding stadiums every week.

That said, The Iron Claw is not exactly a “feel good” movie, as we normally get from sports dramas, but that’s mainly because there’s no real explanation for everything that’s happening to and around Kevin and his brothers. The way Durkin conveys this level of dramatic Greek tragedy proves that Martha Marcy May Marlene was no fluke. He’s a filmmaker clearly able to tell such an undeniably emotional story with the clearest of visions. The cast and crew he’s put together to do so leaves you drained of emotions, because it’s so hard to fathom what Kevin Von Erich must have endured to survive all of it and still live a happy and healthy life.

Talent: A
Story: A
Crafts: A-
Awards Potential: Zac Efron deserves to be in the conversation for his career-best performance. McCallamy is also quite impressive.
Box Office Potential: $20 to $40 million, maybe more with a holiday bump
Renewability: Standalone

Overall Score: A

The Iron Claw will be released nationwide on Friday, Dec. 22.

Studio: A24
Cast: Zac Effron, Holt McCallany, Jeremy Allen White, Lilly James, Harrison Dickinson, Stanley Simons, Maura Tierney
Screenwriter / Director: Sean Durkin
Producers: Tessa Ross, Sean Durkin, Juliette Howell, Angus Lamont, Derrin Schlesinger
DP: Mátyás Erdély
Production Design: James Price
Costume Design: Jennifer Starzyk
Editor: Matthew Hannam
Score by: Richard Reed Parry

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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