by Philip Price
Director: Sean Durkin
Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White & Harris Dickinson
Rated: R (language, suicide, some sexuality and drug use)
Runtime: 2 hours & 12 minutes
After a single viewing, I know that despite my disappointments with “The Iron Claw” they are not because of what the film delivers or how it delivers it, but simply because I wanted more of what it was already delivering. Familiar with the story of and myth surrounding the Von Erich family and always willing to be nostalgic for any kind of professional wrestling pre-1997 or so, I must admit to being rather anxious walking into the latest from Sean Durkin. Though the writer/director has only made two features prior to this (“Martha Marcy May Marlene” being one of my favorite films of 2011), his ability to capture tone and a sense of place is an exceptional quality when done with sincerity and those qualities serve him and this story tremendously. That said, it wasn’t Durkin, the cast, or anything glaring about this production that made me anxious - in fact, the more details that came out about the film the more excited I was to see what they might do with this epic story of tragedy and triumph - and therein lies the cause for such anxiety: could this story, this epic of the Von Erich’s, be both contained and done proper justice in this format? My fear was that this would be the rare case where the material would be better served by a 10-episode season of television than the two-hour feature we’ve been delivered and while that still may be true there is no denying the soul of this film and, appropriately so, the strength of it.
Beginning with an introduction to the patriarch and innovator of the titular move, Jack AKA Fritz Von Erich (an electric Holt McCallany) changed the family name from Adkisson to his mother's maiden, German name (who was also apparently “plagued with bad luck”) in Von Erich as a gimmick for his wrestling persona that aided him in portraying a Nazi-like heel in the ring. The monicker stuck as all five of Fritz's sons, four of whom are portrayed in the film, entered the world of professional wrestling under the Von Erich name. While this opening sequence conveys several critical items most important is the contrast between how Fritz and his wife, Doris (an emotionally suppressed, but blisteringly conflicted Maura Tierney), approach life, Fritz through his appearance and reputation and Doris through her faith. It is this kind of contrasting system of ideas and ideals that create the policies by which their sons live and the theories they intellectually adhere to. It makes sense then that after setting the stage as such the remainder of the first act sees Durkin (who also wrote the screenplay) introducing each of the four boys included in his version of these events while concurrently suggesting how the nurturing of a force like Fritz and a presence like Doris imbued upon and molded them into the men they became and the fate they met. Beginning with Kevin (Zac Efron) we immediately understand that this oldest, living Von Erich brother is also the most resolute and resilient of the bunch. Efron's first scene sees him waking up in the early morning hours and going for a run against the Denton, Texas sunrise. He invites his younger brother, David (Harris Dickinson), to join him, but David elects to remain in bed. Again, Durkin knows he has a limited amount of time to tell this gigantic story and doesn't sacrifice a second of screentime as every moment tells us something about a character that will shape their story. We see Kevin, already heavily embroiled in this world through events at the Dallas Sportatorium, become the Texas Heavyweight Champion early on; only elevating the family's local fame as well as their visibility to execs in the National Wrestling Association (NWA), which was the ultimate goal.
While Kevin possesses the drive along with the ability and talent to compete in the ring (Efron's physical appearance is another discussion entirely) he is not the talker David is. David has charisma and personality along with enough of a physical stature to surpass Kevin as the star of the family. Coming from a large family myself and having three brothers of my own, one of the more fascinating aspects of “The Iron Claw” are the dynamics between the brothers as each of them is interchangeable in their father's ranking of his favorites with much if not all of this having to do with the status of their wrestling personas. As the oldest, Kevin is inherently set up as the one to lead the charge, but as David begins to make headway and then circumstances beyond his control bring Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) back into the fold there is a passing of the torch so to speak. Kevin isn’t happy about it and David exhibits tinges of remorse and insecurity, but neither speak up on behalf of their feelings. Fritz moves his boys around like pieces on a chess board, positioning whoever has the best chance to make the biggest breakthrough at the front of the pack, but the love between the brothers is never lost no matter how much their father's strategic maneuvers might feel like betrayal. Naturally, Kevin feels the brunt of this as the expectations his father places upon his shoulders feel insurmountable anyway, but to make matters worse all of Kevin's opportunities and goals are consistently swept out from underneath him or given to someone else. In many ways, Fritz discards Kevin at every turn; hoisting his expectations from one son to the next and yet Kevin remains the most loyal and the only one ultimately able to withstand the pressure of those expectations.
At just over a half hour into the film, Kerry is introduced. A victim of the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott by the United States, he returned to Texas defeated with a chip on his shoulder and ready to fight back in whatever form afforded him. Of course, being a Von Erich, the opportunity afforded to counter the slights society has leveled against him is by taking them out on others inside the ring. Kerry's integration into this world leads to himself, Kevin and David forming a tag team trio who, as they travel the circuit and perform night after night in different cities, only builds the aura and eminence around the Von Erichs further. As the three sons destined for this type of stage find their groove, Durkin is also developing younger brother Mike (Stanley Simons) as Fritz is doing the same. By the time The Von Erichs fight The Freebirds for the six-man tag team championship in 1983, Mike's involvement has become more of an expectation from his father than the option Mike thought it was prior. Mike is the odd one out for, while his brothers are happy - even passionate about - playing into their father's ambitions, Mike has his own. Mike plays in a band, writes songs and is more interested in the camera angles and production around wrestling than he is the matches themselves. Once again, Fritz discards these aspects of one of his son's identities, aspects that don’t fit into his vision, and casts aside what gives Mike purpose rather than cultivating it. As Durkin continues to weave the arcs of each of the brothers together with Fritz serving as this foreman of the family (business) the momentum builds to a montage just prior to the hour mark that is set to Rush's "Tom Sawyer" and it is quite possibly the most electrifying few minutes of filmmaking I've seen all year. Genuinely engaging due to the time, place and relevance to anyone seeking this out, the film is a collection of moments that crystallize all anyone could hope for from a film set in this world.
This montage is also the turning point for the story Durkin is telling. While the writer/director certainly has something of an aesthetic all his own, what is more telling of Durkin's style is his way of conveying more with an image than simply composing a pretty picture; the image can still be striking, but the significance is even more so. There are several instances of this throughout “The Iron Claw,” but following the aforementioned montage Durkin crossfades and blends separate shots of Kevin, David and Kerry's faces in the aftermath of the tag team championship - bruised, sweaty and slightly disfigured - each telling of how there's still the same amount of pressure as there is pride within them. It tells us where each of them is mentally and how each of their arcs will always be intertwined. It is an incredible touch that gives an appropriate denouement to what we've just witnessed while hinting at the burdens set to bestow them. Durkin counters the musings of this pinnacle with an attempt to continue this high through Kevin's marriage to Pam (Lily James). Layered in among the introductions to each of the brothers and the establishment of the family dynamics, James brings a straightforward and assured presence to a character that would otherwise be easy to dismiss as little more than a tool to help the audience understand the world of wrestling and the inner-workings of the Von Erich clan. Like Tierney, James along with Durkin's direction elevate the character beyond set dressing and into a voice of reason among the chaos and suppressed emotions.
It is in this turn that Durkin also encounters the most challenging aspect of this story; that of organizing and effectively communicating just the volume of devastation that befalls the Von Erichs without allowing it to feel rushed or repetitive. The movie makes mention early on of the oldest Von Erich, Jack Jr., who died at the age of six after being accidentally shocked and drowning in a puddle. Durkin also decides to not include the sixth Von Erich brother, Chris, who killed himself in 1991 at the age of 21 presumably because it mirrors the stories of both Kerry and Mike so closely. Yes, that's correct - three of Fritz's six sons died by suicide. Within the sequence at Kevin and Pam's wedding we are given our first signs of David's illness, the next scene delivering the news of David's death in Japan via a ruptured intestine, and it is here the seams begin to show. David's death feels abrupt - maybe intentionally so as one could at least get away with that justification - yet Durkin doesn't stop there because he can't. Kerry's motorcycle accident and onset of addiction is swiftly followed by Mike's injury and subsequent coma. The pain of as much sends Kevin into a spiral of depression and we see him withdrawing from the world, afraid to pass on this "family curse" to his own children. Though the pacing and structuring of this overwhelming series of events was always going to prove the biggest challenge of putting this story to film, what Durkin does to recourse the echoing effects of this so-called "curse" is again turn to his visual storytelling techniques. To signal Mike's death, Durkin cuts to a black dress lying on a bed. As we have already seen Doris wear this at David's funeral the implications are pronounced as Doris' tough exterior finally cracks. The inclusion of moments such as this do more for delivering the impact of these events than another scene of a priest praying over a casket ever could.
Speaking to the character of Doris, the choice to conduct herself as this type of mother who dispenses with the tools she believes her boys need but offers little by way of emotional support or comfort is one that begs to be understood. Was this simply standard practice for that time? That region? Did she inherit her parenting techniques from her own parents or once married, did she automatically adhere to the same regiment as her husband? Her faith is a large part of her character as well, but as Fritz blames this “curse” for the misfortunes that befall his family Doris’ convictions begin to feel like they’re pulling much the same weight. This obviously isn't the Doris origin story, but despite her limited amount of screentime the influence of Tierney's performance and presence cannot be overstated. Doris is ruthless in a sense, but more she is a hardened soul who doesn't allow herself to give into her emotions. For the longest time, we never see any sign of weakness which makes the moment Doris finally does buckle one of the most heartbreaking scenes in a film filled with them.
It cannot be exaggerated what a whirlwind the final half-hour or so of “The Iron Claw” is as we finally begin to see Kevin, the only brother who was never able to fulfill his destiny as he saw it, begin to walk back from the edge after being pushed toward it his entire life. This is also why Efron's performance is the centerpiece of the film and the emotional core of it. Being the same age as Efron and watching his career trajectory from “High School Musical” to now, it has been fascinating to see him evolve and recently begin to seemingly consider his legacy and the shape of his career. In Kevin, he finds the perfect conduit for all of his talents as he can channel a rawness and tangibility in his performance both physically and emotionally. I would be lying if I said I've never questioned Efron's acting ability as he clearly has a certain look about him that would lead you to believe certain things about his personality, but once he begins talking you realize he's a little manic, probably impulsive, but definitely obsessive about his work. Like, dude's body is insane - which isn't a given knowing what it takes to achieve that, but kind of is since we've seen Efron as the peak of physical fitness before - but beyond the bulk, when we're sitting with Kevin in the final frames of the film and the fact we can feel the aforementioned weight on his shoulders be, not lifted, but washed away by all of the agony and sorrow he has experienced solely through Efron's face is enough grounds for verification that this guy is, in fact, the real deal. That this title wave of grief subsides and becomes something akin to peace when Kevin's young sons embrace their weeping father is only further confirmation of such.
To be frank, I was surprised at how White's Kerry is the least defined of the brothers, his arc not really forming a definition until his accident after which we are to assume he becomes a shell of his former self anyway. The film somewhat glazes over his moving on to the WWF, but moreover, Kerry's death is played as the final straw that breaks the bind between Kevin and his father. For Kevin, this idea of the "Von Erich curse" was always something he nor his family actually had any say in, something they could not control and that they were plagued with; a very superstitious, unfounded way to lead your life - as well as a kind of irrational one. It is Pam who presents the counter idea of it being possible to make one's own luck and this is the backbone of Durkin's screenplay as he weaves Kevin's conflict of trying to remain true to his father's ideas and beliefs despite realizing what they’re doing to the rest of his family. The story of the Von Erichs has been presented as a cautionary tale about parental influence, sibling rivalry, and the various dangers of the professional wrestling business and while those broad categorizations certainly apply Durkin ultimately settles his film around something more abstract; more heavenly, if you will. That the setting for all of Fritz's discipline and disaster could be the warmth and mood of a southern summer night in the ‘80s feels like a contradiction and as Kevin's arc suggests, the contradictions of life must be balanced by the ability to perceive and understand rather than leaving it up to destiny or even circumstance. We make our own luck or, as Ric Flair (portrayed perfectly here by Aaron Dean Eisenberg) would say, "In order to be the man, you have to beat the man." The ultimate tragedy being Kevin learned this lesson too late and that his brothers didn’t have time to learn it at all.