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December 22, 2023 / Elevation Pictures

Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Stanley Simons, Holt McCallany, Lily James

Directed By: Sean Durkin

The Von Erich family becomes a dynasty of professional wrestlers who make history, but a series of tragic events tests their strength and spirit.

Written By Darren

Rating 4.5 out of 5

The Iron Claw is an absolutely devastating cinematic experience that is among one of the year’s most extraordinary films thanks to a career best performance by Zac Efron, an excellent ensemble cast, and nerve wracking wrestling sequences that brings the story of the Von Erich family to life in one of A24’s best films to date.

Even if you know nothing about professional wrestling of the Von Erich family, you are going to have no problem following A24’s latest film The Iron Claw. It acts as an introduction to the uninitiated to the sport, introducing them to the behind the scenes operations, the storylines, and how it all works while telling the story of one of the sport’s dynasty family: the Von Erich’s. Serving as both director and writer, Sean Durkin captures the talent and star quality that made the Von Erich boys giants in the sport, but also the devastating tragedies faced by the family that creates a harrowing watch. It’s clear that Durkin was a wrestling fan and that of the Von Erich’s, as you can feel the love for this story in every frame of the film from the accurate wrestling scenes, the focus on the characters rather than only showing wrestling scenes, and a truly incredible cast to bring it all to life.

Though the film’s story is focused around the sport of wrestling, this is not a sports film. Durkin’s screenplay is a family drama set in the world of professional wrestling, in which he balances the rise to fame of the Von Erich children in the world of professional wrestling with the personal tragedies that followed the family that they attributed to the “Von Erich curse”. It’s not the full story of the Von Erich family, as the family’s youngest son Chris was removed from the screenplay to keep the runtime shorter, but Durkin captures the essence of their family’s story. Durkin uses Kevin Von Erich as the audience's entry into the family, framing the film from him as he tried to protect his brothers and make it as a wrestler, which leads to some incredibly raw moments. In the first half of the film, Durkin captures some truly touching moments between the brothers, and with Kevin and his girlfriend Pam who he marries, while also showcasing their father’s attitude towards their lives and their mother’s distant love for them. One on hand it’s heartbreaking seeing the lack of support these boys had from their parents that only makes their bond of brotherhood more special, but at the same time seeing Fritz Von Erich’s complete lack of care for his children and pushing them to the extreme is utterly horrifying to watch. Then in the film’s second half, Durkin explores the tragedies faced by their family, which results in one of the most emotionally devastating stories to be captured on film this year. Never for a second letting up, Durkin’s screenplay is exceptional in dealing with this bleak and heartbreaking subject matter, creating a whirlwind of emotions that will have audiences reaching for tissues constantly to dry their eyes.

The film features its fair share of wrestling moments, and they will take your breath away. With the cast performing their own stunts in one-take after being trained by professional wrestlers and full length wrestling sequences in front of a live audience, it feels like you are watching live wrestling. With every hit and knock out, you can hear the brutality of the moves performed by the cast that will have audiences wincing in their seats as this is not “Hollywood” fighting. This is actual wrestling with the actors putting themselves in harm's way and fighting through overwhelming amounts of pain to create an authentic experience (including one move where White could have broken his neck if he had done it wrong), and recreating the phenomenon that made the Von Erich family take the professional wrestling world by storm in the 1980s. The live audience energizes the sequences, making the audience feel like they are right there witnessing the fights in person, that combined with a lack of music during these scenes, truly lets the athleticism of the performances take centre stage.

Efron will always be Troy Bolton to many viewers, but his work here in The Iron Claw not only showcases his true skill as an actor, but he is at a level of craftsmanship that audiences have never seen from him before. As Kevin Von Erich, the oldest living son of the family, Efron balances his character’s drive to protect his younger brothers while following in his father’s master plan for the family. The fabled Von Erich curse weighs heavy on Kevin, bringing a true devastation to Efron’s performance as the events faced by his family unfold. During multiple scenes, Efron will quietly, or not so quietly, break your heart as you watch him process the immense grief, sorrow, pain and rage his character experiences with a raw vulnerability that tugs on your heart strings. This is only amplified by the brighter first half of the film where Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson and Stanley Simons, where the actors create an unbreakable bond between the Von Erich brothers that is the emotional core of the film. It truly seems like we are going to be hearing Efron’s name announced as being nominated for an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, as he gives the performance of a lifetime that will have both Academy voters and audiences reaching for tissues throughout the film.

While Efron is the star of the film, his performance would not be as phenomenal as it is without the supporting work of White, Dickinson, and Simons as Kevin’s brothers. Each of them is exceptional in capturing the brother they are portraying, their memorable personality, and the demons that each of them face with a brutally painful honesty. White has the largest of the supporting roles, once again proving why he is such an in demand talent, while Dickinson leaves a haunting impression on the film with his tender portrayal of David. As with every role she takes, Lily James is a ray of light in this otherwise bleak story as Kevin’s girlfriend Pam, bringing a sweetness and determination to the film that will leave a smile on your face. Her chemistry with Efron is instant and explosive, helping to create the conflict within Kevin as he wants to be there for his brothers but also protect his own family from the Von Erich curse, resulting in one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes. Holt McCallany is chilling as the patriarch of the Von Erich family Fritz with his fanatical determination to make his sons wrestling gods at any costs combined with his blatant disregard for them as human beings. McCallany’s presence looms over the entire film, and while you never for a second doubt that Fritz loves his sons, McCallany’s performance captures the complicated and unhealthy father-son relationship that he had with his boys, which sadly played into the family tragedies. And while her role is often silent, Maura Tierney is nothing short of marvelous as the matriarch of the Von Erich family Doris. Deeply devout and removed from her sons’ personal lives, Tierney never for a second lets you question her character’s love for her boys while she adopts her husband’s attitude of “it’s between you and your brothers” whenever the boys need help.

Only adding to this beautiful yet heartbreaking film is the original song “Live That Way Forever” written by Laurel Sprengelmeyer and Richard Reed Parry, which is performed by Simons as Michael Von Erich during the film and plays during the closing credits. The song has a haunting quality that captures the love between the Von Erich boys and their passion for wrestling and life during the first half of the film, but takes on another meaning when it plays over the closing credits after the events of the film unfold. It stands out among all of the original songs written for cinema this year, and it would be nice to see it get some recognition this awards season.

Despite the difficult subject matter of the film, there is no doubt in my mind that A24 has one of their biggest hits in their studio’s history with Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw. Not only is it a sports biopic, which usually do well with audiences but it's an incredible film that stands among one of the year’s best that will hopefully get all the attention it deserves. Led by a truly breathtaking performance from Zac Efron that will define his acting career going forward, and a superb supporting cast of stars such as Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, and Lily James, Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw is a tour de force in storytelling that will leave audiences devastated after witnessing the tragic story of the Von Erich family told so beautifully.

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