‘The Iron Claw’ Review: Zac Efron, Pumped and Inspired, Leads an Absorbing True-Life Drama About a Pro-Wrestling Dynasty

‘The Iron Claw’ Review: Zac Efron, Pumped and Inspired, Leads an Absorbing True-Life Drama About a Pro-Wrestling Dynasty

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Gladiators, pain freaks, brutes, clowns, true athletes, fake competitors: The slab-of-meat stars of professional wrestling are all those things. And back in the 1980s, when wrestling was reaching its cultural zenith, it almost looked as if you could divide the world between those who took wrestling on the level and those who dismissed it as a vulgar, over-the-top bad joke.

Yet it was never that simple. Even if you saw through the put-on nature of wrestling, you could still get off on the theater of it as cartoon spectacle. And a great many hard-core wrestling fans were actually in on the joke. They knew, on some level, that they were watching staged antics, yet that didn’t keep them from experiencing it all as “real.” If you’re wondering how that kind of cognitive dissonance works, welcome to the America that pro wrestling helped to usher in — an America in which Donald Trump, who used pro wrestling to boost his own celebrity, could build his presidential aspirations on fakery and still be “believed” by people who don’t care that he’s fooling them.

All of which makes “The Iron Claw,” a true-life wrestling saga set in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with an ensemble cast featuring Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White, a perfect movie for this moment. The writer-director, Sean Durkin (who made the chilling cult drama “Martha Marcy May Marlene” a dozen years ago and then slipped under the radar), tells the story of the Von Erich family, a dynasty of wrestlers from Texas who won championships, found enormous popularity, and put their stamp on a sport that was only then establishing its larger-than-life imprint. Some called them the Kennedys of wrestling, and the Von Erichs, too, had a family “curse,” a legendary run of personal catastrophe.  

In the opening moments, shot in dusty black-and-white, we meet the patriarch who started it all, Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), back when he’s a wrestler in the ’60s, trying to carve out a living to support his wife and two sons (with another on the way). For the era, he was quite a mad dog. In the ring, we see him whip out his signature move, the Iron Claw, which consists of holding his hand up high, fingers curled and tensed, then using it to gouge his opponent’s face. It’s all pretend, of course, but back then the synthetic nature of wrestling was less grandiose.

Out of the ring, Fritz is a deeply conservative family man who raises his clan like something out of the 1950s. But that’s easier said than done, since the movie then leaps ahead to 1979, where we meet the Von Erich sons, who are shaggy paragons of post-counterculture red-state America. The film’s central figure, Kevin Von Erich, is played by Efron, who has transformed his face and body in a way that’s nearly as dramatic as what De Niro did in “Raging Bull.” We’ve seen dozens of actors pump themselves up, but Kevin’s body is a mass of steroidal muscle he wears like a second skin, and under his choppy bangs he’s both handsome and slugged. Efron, with heavy-lidded eyes, resembles David Cassidy crossed with the Hulk. Kevin is a rising star on the wrestling circuit, but what he looks like is a young man encased in his dreams.

Kevin and his brothers, who will soon be drawn into the ring along with him, see themselves as athletes, pure and simple. They never regard wrestling as a joke, and neither does the film, which strikes a tone of earnest and tragic sincerity. “The Iron Claw” shows us exactly how wrestling works and, at the same time, how its stars could take themselves as seriously as they do. Just before a tag-team match, we watch the four wrestlers planning the choreography; the moves and bits are all plotted out. But there’s room for improv, and what can never be staged is the star bravura. To move up and be awarded with a title shot means executing the leaps, slams, and gougings to violent perfection, turning it all into riveting theater and getting the crowd to like you.

We’re rooting for Kevin to climb that ladder, to work his way up from contests in the local Sportatorium to a shot at National Wrestling Association champion. But there is competition. It comes from his brothers, who his father doesn’t just coach — he ranks them, setting them against each other so that they’re all competing for his love and approval.

There is David (Harris Dickinson), a mellow, long-blond-angel-haired prankster who’s drawn into the ring almost despite himself. There is Kerry (“The Bear’s” Jeremy Allen White in his first big-ticket film role), a moody, taciturn aspiring Olympic discus thrower who falls back on wrestling after President Jimmy Carter decides to have America boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. (Fritz glares at this announcement on TV as if Carter were burning the flag.) And there is Mike (Stanley Simons), mild and unathletic, who has no interest in wrestling — his passion is fronting a rock band — and who we think couldn’t possibly compete in the ring. But he, too, allows his father to mold him into a hellacious circus fighter.

What’s the Von Erich curse? It started with the death, decades before, of their oldest son, and we see the first inkling of it when David throws up blood before going on a European tour. But really, there is no curse. The only curse is that Fritz Von Erich is a maniac of aggression who runs his family like the Great Santini crossed with a prison warden. He has built the dynasty as a business (the family owns a cut of the profits through a TV deal), and he wants at least one of his sons to bring home that championship belt, even if they have to die to do it.

A movie with a message that says “A father should not rule his family like a passive homicidal sadist” might seem to be a bit out of time. Yet Holt McCallany plays this iron-clawed domestic dictator on a human scale; he shows us the love entwined with the mercilessness. “The Iron Claw” has a more convincing period atmosphere than “The Holdovers,” it showcases the media theatrics of wrestling with an eerie unironic innocence, and the rest of the cast is superb. White’s role is a bit underwritten, but he uses his hangdog handsomeness to suggest muffled demons. Harris Dickinson, who played the aspiring model/influencer in “Triangle of Sadness,” makes as convincing a Texas hippie as anyone in “Dazed and Confused,” and Lily James, as the girlfriend Kevin marries, is the soul of hardheaded devotion. But in the end it’s Zac Efron’s movie. He plays Kevin as a moving simpleton with hidden depths, a fellow of such decency that the one thing he won’t do is disobey. He’s the film’s Cringing Bull.

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