The Iron Claw is full of bruises. The family at the center of writer-director Sean Durkin’s film, the Von Erichs (a stage name much different than their surname Adkisson), revels in ring-induced contusions. The bodies of the boys in the ring take a collective beating, a constant amount of pressure and pleasure from winning wrestling bouts often organized by their father and coach, Jack (Holt McCallany). Durkin’s biopic initially celebrates the glory in the ring, but as time passes and the young men fall one-by-one, the filmmaker focuses on the moments before and after each match, on muscles about to break, on psyches hanging by a thread, on the sheer weight of generational masculinity forcing its way into their heads. 

Kevin Von Erich (a stoic Zac Efron) and his brothers, David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and Mike (Stanley Simons) battle inside and outside the ring, pushed by their promoter, organizer, and once-great father (stage name Fritz Von Erich). For him, a world championship means everything. Any sacrifice is worth it. “The belt belongs in the family,” he says over and over again, unwilling to compromise regardless of his sons’ mental or physical states. Soon, these sons––and this is a movie that remains firmly about sons and fathers––begin to die, either by accident or suicide, a supposed curse keeping them from retaining success or happiness.

Durkin and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély shoot the ring with reverence, dismissing the theatrics of wrestling and opting for a grittier sense of awe. There is joy but there is also immense pain, the two mixing together into a cocktail of impending doom. The Von Erichs attempt to chisel their bodies to perfection as they impress their father and audiences––both those in the film and those sitting in the theater––watching it unfold. It’s astonishing to watch the actors (and their characters) fly around the ring, fighting in unison yet maintaining their individual flair. Efron in particular looks god-like, jumping from the ropes, floating through the air as if he’s untouchable, until he’s suddenly not. Like each brother, they’re invincible up until a certain point, when their bodies or minds (or both) falter. 

And when the bell sounds and belts have been handed out, there’s silence waiting for the Von Erichs, a consistent absence that Durkin lends to the story. It’s a family always in mourning, a group of people who never exist without grief. But there isn’t time for such sorrow in the family, as another fight and another loss are looming. This cycle of grief and glory frames The Iron Claw, even if the real-life story somehow remains even more brutal. The film cuts out Chris Von Erich, the youngest of the siblings, who also died by suicide, at the age of 21, what Durkin has admitted is a difficult-but-necessary decision for the story.

Efron shines in a meatier role, an aberration from his early days of comedies and musicals. He’s hardened and strained, a boy desperately hoping for a different outcome for his brothers, and then a man who struggles to even look at those around him. His eyes often look straight ahead. The actor’s smile, or lack thereof, contains a lifetime of pressure from his father, 20-some years of losing the battle to be the best, to be the favorite, to be loved. For Efron’s Kevin, there are only rare moments of rest and relaxation, joy strictly coming from the few times he spends with his brothers, in the ring acting as one, out of the ring dancing as one. And when emotion is needed, he nails it. 

Around Efron, White and Dickinson provide this backdrop of contained fire, rage, and hurt, helping and fighting one another. Beyond any sort of physical grandness, the actors display weight in their faces, a difficult-to-quantify burden, a fluctuation between anguish for their present and hope that a title belt will cement their future. They have such need and desire to make their father proud, to provide honor––not necessarily money––for their immediate family. They swirl around each other in this literal and figurative dance, a hierarchy forming and reforming. 

As the patriarch, McCallany is angry and exhausted of losing, wishing he were the one to hold the belt, instead morphing his sons into better versions of himself. He fills the film with terror, a villain in his own family, unable to contain his ballooned demands, requirement of control, and an unflinching idea of destiny. Alongside him, Maura Tierney plays matriarch Doris Von Erich in perhaps the film’s most wounded role, a mother unable to stop the compounded death around her. She’s the definition of contained devastation. 

The emotional thrum of the Von Erichs’ tragedies swells until it cannot be stopped. Wave after wave of brokenness depicted on screen, Durkin’s third feature excels in showing the inner fight of passed-down manhood and a father’s unyielding impact. It’s one of the year’s best pictures, the pageantry and pain, building and breaking of a family full of wrestling legends. 

The Iron Claw is now in theaters.

Grade: A-

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