Zac Efron in The Iron Claw (2023)

‘The Iron Claw’ movie review: Zac Efron, Holt McCallany shine in haunting wrestling story

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A family of professional wrestlers goes through almost unimaginable tragedy in The Iron Claw, now playing in Prague cinemas courtesy distributor Aerofilms after racking up award-season buzz (but zero Oscar nominations) at the end of last year. This moody, haunting portrayal of the Von Erich family strikes a real nerve, but also feels somewhat inauthentic and strangely aloof.

Still, commanding performances from Zac Efron and especially Holt McCallany keep this downbeat drama from sinking. The Iron Claw may not do complete justice to the real-life story of the Von Erich family of professional wrestlers (that might take a documentary miniseries), but it captures essence of their hardships in broad sweeps, and evocatively re-creates the very specific time and place they operated in.

McCallany stars as Fritz Von Erich, who we first see in an early 1960s flashback in The Iron Claw‘s opening scene. He’s professional wrestler struggling to support his wife (Maura Tierney, excellent throughout in an understated performance) and two young children, but sees a future for his family inside the ring.

Two decades later, Fritz is now running the show at the Dallas Sportatorium while his four sons compete for glory. Talented but speech-anxious Kevin (Efron) is fighting for a chance at a World Championship bout, but getting usurped by charismatic younger brother David (Harris Dickinson); Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) takes on professional wrestling after the U.S. bows out of the 1980 Olympics and derails his career; and the more musically-inclined youngest brother Mike (Stanley Simons) is urged into the ring by his father.

But as Kevin tells future wife Pam (an effervescent Lily James), a Von Erich curse hangs over the family, dating back to when his father took on a German name to play a heel in the ring. And after compelling setup establishing these characters and the world they inhabit, The Iron Claw turns bleak and melancholic as it charts their downfall.

The Iron Claw was written and directed by Sean Durkin, who previously made Martha Marcy May Marlene and 2020’s The Nest. His latest feature showcases the same austere command of mood and setting, but is far less plot-driven than those previous features, and the screenplay often struggles to find story threads to drive its narrative beyond tragedy after tragedy.

There’s also a significant departure from the real-life story that causes The Iron Claw to come of as somewhat inauthentic. An additional brother, Chris Von Erich, was written out of the screenplay (the tragedy would have been too much, said director Durkin, who isn’t wrong). And apart from Efron’s Kevin, the other brothers are somewhat thinly sketched; they each had wives and children of their own – lives away from the central Von Erich family – but are glimpsed here almost exclusively through the larger family lens.

Much of The Iron Claw takes place at the Von Erich family estate in rural Texas and the somewhat rinky-dink Dallas Sportatorium. The film’s set and costume design does a wonderful job at recreating the feel of a small-time family wrestling operation, but never really captures the worldwide stardom of the Von Erich family at their peak. But while its portrayal of professional wrestling can sometimes feel caustic (see Kevin Anton‘s turn as Harley Race), inside the ring the moves never feel less than credible.

While additional characters and storylines, and a wider perspective, would have been difficult (and more expensive) to condense into a two-hour feature film, The Iron Claw could have benefited from a more arms-length perspective that stuck to the facts. Still, this haunting portrayal of one the wrestling world’s more unfortunate stories has staying power, and sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.

The Iron Claw

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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