The story of the Von Erich wrestling family is a very tragic one. At once both inevitable and entirely preventable, it is about brotherly love butting up against stubborn selfishness coming from a father they idolize. The biopic The Iron Claw features the terrible things that happened to them. That trauma is, in essence, the centerpiece of the movie. There is some pro wrestling action, but this is not a “wrestling movie.” It is about family, pride, love and grief.
It is a sad, well-acted, drama, which recounts their tale without adding much in the way of insight. As someone who has heard a lot about the Von Erichs over the last thirty years, I was engrossed watching it unfold in front of me. However, I never became emotionally invested in them as individuals. This isn’t a character study; it’s more of a cautionary tale. The result is a good movie that doesn’t have enough feeling (besides sadness) to be great.
Fritz Von Erich was a successful wrestler who was never given the chance to be world champion by the National Wrestling Alliance. Now retired, he runs his own promotion, World Class Championship Wrestling out of Dallas, and vows that at least one of his sons will bring the NWA title into the family. Whatever the physical and mental cost.
The focal point of The Iron Claw (126 minutes, minus the end credits) is Kevin, the oldest of the four wrestling brothers (the actual first born passed away when he was a child). Kevin is played by Zac Efron in a strong performance that nearly overcomes the screenplay’s tendency to see the boys as victims with little agency (this part seems to be, unfortunately, pretty accurate to reality).
Kevin lives his life for his family. He wants to wrestle and be world champion, mostly because he wants to make his father proud. His relationship with a woman named Pam gives Kevin something else to focus on, even if they don’t discuss much besides wrestling and his family. Efron and Lily James have good chemistry, but this is not their story, so she, especially, has little to do except worry about Kevin.
Fritz, as played by Holt McCallany, is a bitter, resentful, man, who uses his sons so he can get a taste of the glory he was cheated out of in his own career. This isn’t love. He treats them like employees that are disappointing him if they aren’t being chosen to win championships. His cruelty comes from his ego and his inability to see them as human beings. They are opportunities for him. His wife, Doris, keeps herself at a distance from all of this. She clearly loves the boys, as well as her husband, yet takes the stance that this is between them. Maura Tierney is powerful in her grief, though the character is otherwise a bit of an enigma.
While The Iron Claw is fascinating as a look at parental obsession and ignorance, where it suffers is at the personal level. Kevin is a nice guy who loves family above all else, David is the hard worker, Kerry is the incredible athlete and Mike is a sweet young man who just isn’t cut out for this business. Besides the struggles that lead to their tragedies, there isn’t a whole lot to them. That is a shame because then we can’t feel for them personally. Sure, we can grieve for the pointlessness of it all, but there isn’t a connection that would have made this more impactful.
In the end, what I felt was anger and frustration. Anger at Fritz for not understanding (or maybe not caring) what he was doing to his own children; how he was pushing them too hard with his emotional manipulation toward a dream that really wasn’t theirs. Frustration that nobody could see what was happening until it was far too late. There is a scene at Kevin and Pam’s wedding shortly before fate takes over, where the four brothers dance together, that is devastating because we know the good times can’t possibly last.
Writer/director Sean Durkin handles the material sensitively enough. It doesn’t feel exploitative, like it’s using what the Von Erich’s went through for entertainment. However, it is mostly a retelling. It is a good one even if it doesn’t quite go deeper than heartbreaking tragedy.
3½ out of 5
Zac Efron as Kevin Von Erich
Jeremy Allen White as Kerry Von Erich
Holt McCallany as Fritz Von Erich
Harris Dickinson as David Von Erich
Stanley Simons as Mike Von Erich
Maura Tierney as Doris Von Erich
Lily James as Pam
Written and Directed by Sean Durkin