The Iron Claw

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Iron Claw
"Efron...brings patience and grace to a role which could have been played much more conventionally, and elevates the whole."

In the grand scale of things, humans are pretty fragile creatures. Our power comes from out intelligence, cooperation and tool use, not from our physical abilities – and if you disagree with that, go argue the point with a lion. That said, there is a longstanding tendency amongst some men to believe that if they can only muscle up enough, they can dominate everything else in their environment and achieve success. The combination of sport and showmanship that is professional wrestling allows this dream to come true, to an extent. Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallanay – who is introduced in black and white when his sons are still small and he still believes he can become heavyweight champion of the world – argues that by being the toughest and the strongest, his family members can be safe. “Ever since I was a child, people said my family was cursed,” reflects Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) some years later, and the tragedy is that nobody puts these two ideas together.

Kevin has ‘big brother syndrome’, or so Pam (Lily James) tells him on their first date, in the midst of an interrogation so thorough that one might mistake her for an undercover journalist. He explains that he isn’t technically the oldest brother in the family – that was Jack Jr, who died in an accident at the age of six. It was the first in a long series of tragedies which the film successfully explores – primarily from his perspective – as though they really were caused by something supernatural, or just a consequence of bad luck. It’s only when one sits back and reflects on how they happened that the connection becomes obvious – and eventually, he will see it himself, coming to recognise the destructive power of the very force that promised them salvation.

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Efron’s appearance in the film is responsible for a lot of the interest it has generated. naturally he has had to bulk up for the role, and there’s nothing particularly mysterious about the fact that someone who first gained fame in his teens would change shape as he got older, but it’s a shame that the focus is on his jaw (which muscled up after an accident) when of much greater interest is the way he has matured as a performer. Although the supporting cast is well chosen and has impressive chemistry, he is ultimately the one who has to carry the film. He brings patience and grace to a role which could have been played much more conventionally, and elevates the whole.

The film needs this. It needs it very badly because, for all the elements of tragedy, it’s really a very plain and undeveloped narrative. Wrestling fans may well be drawn to it because it’s based on the real life story of a famous family (whose subsequent generation has continued to wrestle – with, ne hopes, a healthier ethos). People attracted to a certain type of male physique will no doubt find it appealing, as will some legacy Efron fans, but beyond that it’s not so clear what the appeal is. It takes a long time to go nowhere surprising, and aside from Kevin and Fritz, none of the characters get much development. The women are particularly badly served, with poor Pam in the classic Doctor Who assistant mode of person-to-explain-things-to.

Films about toxic masculinity often focus on violence and aggression. The Iron Claw (named after Fritz’s signature move) wisely restricts that to the ring, recognising that there are other ways in which damage can be done. The bullying within this family is of the manipulative rather than threatening variety, but it’s underscored by an absence of love and an effort to stunt the brothers’ emotional development that leaves them desperately vulnerable when things go wrong. Whilst it’s hard to see why the film has achieved quite so much acclaim, this aspect of it could well be of real importance to some viewers, helping them to recognise destructive influences in their own lives. That said, Cassandro, released in the same year in the US, tackles similar issues and is much more watchable.

Despite the title, we don’t see a whole lot of the iron claw or any other distinctive more. There’s some good stunt work in the wrestling scenes and an emphasis on skill and performance rather than just strength, but they’re not central to the story. A similar amount of time is spent on trash talk which, for those not already initiated into the traditions of the sport, is so excruciatingly tacky that it threatens to destroy the atmosphere of the film altogether. Writer/director Sean Durkin struggles to be all things to all people. The result is a film that never really seems to find an identity of its own.

Reviewed on: 09 Feb 2024
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The Iron Claw packshot
The true story of the inseparable Von Erich brothers, who made history in the intensely competitive world of professional wrestling in the early 1980s.

Director: Sean Durkin

Writer: Sean Durkin

Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Holt McCallanay, Lily James

Year: 2023

Runtime: 132 minutes

Country: US, UK

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