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Intense love and immeasurable loss in ‘The Iron Claw’

The+Sheik+%28Chavo+Guerrero+Jr.%29+and+Kevin+Von+Erich+%28Zac+Efron%29+face+off+in+the+ring+in+A24s+film+The+Iron+Claw.
Courtesy of A24
The Sheik (Chavo Guerrero Jr.) and Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) face off in the ring in A24’s film “The Iron Claw.”

There’s an unshakable feeling set in stone right from the opening black-and-white sequence of director Sean Durkin’s heart-wrenching new drama, “The Iron Claw.” It’s the sense that fate has something peculiar and unnatural in store for the Von Erich family. Something so terrible that it cannot possibly be put into words — until it must be.

The father figure of the family, Fritz (Holt McCallany), firmly tells two of his sons that there’s a curse hanging over the family. A curse that must be fought. Decades after his words are spoken into the cold air, this threat of an unknown force looms over the Von Erich family — all throughout Fritz’s never-ending insistence that all of his sons fight in the wrestling ring. Unfathomable tragedy keeps brutally seeping its way into the family, leading Kevin (Zac Efron) to question his place in the pre-ordained wrestling world around him.

This unbelievably depressing true story is brought to life with magnetic cinematic force in “The Iron Claw.” In fact, the filmmakers even cut one of the real life brothers from the story who died by suicide, fearing that the audience would find another loss too difficult to believe.

This riveting and emotionally charged drama allows the audience to fully feel the loss of brotherhood, dreams and passion without ever manipulating the audience. While the facade of a wrestling drama may initially deter audiences who aren’t interested in sports, the real heart of the film is found in the bond among the four brothers.

Through a sunny 1980s Americana backdrop, Durkin and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély create the feeling of watching a memory slowly fade away. We experience just enough happy, carefree moments between the brothers — whether it be eating cheeseburgers together and driving or simply going to a college party — for us to understand their unbreakable love. However, even these moments feel crucially shortened, often abruptly cutting back to the heated wrestling matches that suffocate the brother’s lives.

The film is truly an ensemble piece with great turns from Harris Dickinson, Jeremy Allen White and Lily James. But really it’s Efron’s lead performance as Kevin that brings the story beats home. In addition to presenting a tough exterior in the ring and especially in front of his father, Efron also plays important moments with tenderness and vulnerability. It’s Efron’s best performance to date.

One of the most striking and effective themes that Durkin’s taut screenplay touches upon is fragile masculinity. All of the men in the family struggle to naturally process their emotions. We feel how it’s all tied back to Fritz’s deep-rooted fears and the values he instilled in his boys from such a young age to never externalize their emotions. It even extends to Fritz’s wife, Doris (Maura Tierney). Before another funeral Doris and the remaining family must attend, she stifles back any sadness, any tears. Her face remains stale. It’s one of the most remarkable yet simple scenes in the entire film.

“The Iron Claw” is one of the most compelling wrestling dramas in recent years. It asks the viewer to consider how far a single person is willing to push themselves physically when they are fighting a losing battle. While A24’s late December release-strategy has unfortunately kept it from being more in the awards conversation in such a competitive year, Durkin’s terrific work here will be undoubtedly remembered as a 2023 highlight.

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