A24 has gained a reputation as Hollywood’s coolest independent studio thanks to hits including Uncut Gems, Oscar winner Moonlight, and Hereditary. It continues its reputation for unique tales with The Iron Claw, a true story based in the world of professional wrestling.
It focuses on The Von Erichs, a family of wrestlers who would become celebrities in their native Texas as the heroes of the local scene. Beyond the headlocks, however, the four Von Erich brothers are ruled by manipulative father Fritz (Holt McCallany). An embittered veteran, he puts down his most talented sons Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and David (Harris Dickinson) in the pursuit of glory. The pressure soon becomes too much, leading to a string of tragic events that would lead the family to be labelled as cursed.
Seen through the eyes of Efron’s oldest brother, the film is a sombre look at the devastating effects of toxic masculinity within a family. From the earliest scenes, where Fritz explains to his sons his “ranking” system for them, we see the lives of the four siblings unravel as they buckle underneath the weight of never being enough. The dimly lit wrestling venues, straight faced family portraits, and blood-spattered changing rooms paint a grim vision of the price of fame that only shows flickers of light. The love between the brothers, and Kevin’s path to breaking away from Fritz’s rule, become small moments of consolation in a bleak but gripping family saga.
Much has been made of Efron’s physical transformation, packing on the muscle and sporting an 80’s bowl cut. It’s certainly jarring to see the heartthrob looking so different; however, he delivers an interesting performance filled with unspoken pain. The actor’s eyes tell a lot of the story, from freezing in the spotlight to quietly worrying about his brothers, he connects wonderfully with Lily James as Kevin’s no-nonsense wife Pam.
Elsewhere, The Bear star White feels soulful and lost as Kerry, awkwardly carrying the family legacy, while Stanley Simons is agonising to watch as black sheep Mike, the youngest brother more suited to music than grappling. He typifies the film’s sense of unease, where even if you’re unaware of the family’s legacy, you feel something awful is just around the corner. While you may end the film hating him, McCallamy is the standout as Fritz, a figure so fearsome it’s clear to see how young men half his age and twice his size would cower.
The Iron Claw spends most of its time focusing the tragedy, meaning if you aren’t versed in wrestling history you won’t understand the star qualities that made them such big names. However, what it lacks in historical bullet points, it makes up for through intense character study, giving a study of the male psyche that very few films offer. If this is a sign of Efron moving into more serious drama, he stepped into the ring with the right filmmaker.