Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw Presents the Injured Psychology of a Seemingly Cursed Wrestling Family

The Iron Claw releases in Australian cinemas on 18 January 2024.

The qualification “Inspired by a True Story,” does a lot of heavy lifting in Sean Durkin’s American tragedy The Iron Claw a film based on the seemingly cursed Texan wrestling family the Von Erichs. The qualification applies because Durkin is not interested in creating a straight up sports biopic of the ill-fated clan. Instead, he is interested in damaging and damaged masculinity. Durkin is also invested in the joyousness of brotherhood before it becomes corrupted by an overbearing patriarch. His creative decisions to completely remove one of the brothers (Chris) and the wives of most of the Von Erich brothers is to pinpoint focus on the only surviving Von Eric sibling, Kevin (Zac Efron).

Sean Durkin is fascinated with injured psychology. The Canadian director’s previous features were the Elizabeth Olsen led drama Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) wherein a young woman’s fractured identity post escaping a cult is filled with ambiguity. In The Nest (2020) Rory, Jude Law’s failing patriarch, takes his American family to a crumbling manse in England. Neither Martha nor Rory have a sense of self which has not in some manner been manipulated. The Iron Claw sees Durkin returning to the idea of identity and self-determination. This time the cult leader and culpable patriarch is Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) who has taken his wrestling heel persona from the ring and into his family life.

Durkin and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély drop the audience directly into the ring. In a black and white sequence scored magnificently by Richard Reed Parry we see a younger Fritz rile up the crowd to hatred as he pummels his opponent. It is brutal and punishing, and despite all notions of professional wrestling being “fake” the sequence proves that although choreographed and often predetermined; when those takedowns, pins, and half-nelsons, properly land they can hurt. Fritz does his signature move, the Iron Claw. He wins the match and waits alone afterwards for his wife Dottie (Maura Tierney) and two young sons to pick him up. Fritz is a hulking figure who plays with his boys Kevin and David. They are starstruck by him. Less starstruck is Dottie who sees he’s used their meagre income to buy an expensive car to tow their caravan. He assures Dottie that if he is “the toughest, the strongest, the most successful,” the family will be protected. Dottie mutters a prayer.

A jump forward in time (and into colour) and the audience is inside Fritz and Dottie’s home in Texas. The camera pans the house; trophies and family photos (one that will become a focus point as the brothers disappear one by one). Kevin and David (Harris Dickinson) are older, but still young. Kevin awakens his brother for training and the audience hears the lines that will be repeated in the film:

“People said my family was cursed. I don’t know if I believed it. Bad things happened.

Mom tried to protect us with God. Pop tried to protect us with wrestling. He said, ‘If we were the toughest, the strongest, the most successful, nothing could hurt us.’ He believed in wrestling and I loved wrestling.”

Kevin does love wrestling, but he is inside a cult. The cult isn’t wresting itself – it is Fritz’s desperate need to succeed through his sons. A breakfast scene shows him ranking his children: “Kerry is my favourite. Then Kevin, then David, then Mike. But the ratings can change. People can move up.” He’s bullying Mike (Stanley Simons) about not hitting the weights. Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) is primed to become the family’s first Olympian until Jimmy Carter pulls the USA team out over Afghanistan. Already Kevin and David are wrestling in the Dallas Sportatorium promoting Fritz’s World Class Championship Wrestling.

David and Kevin are each other’s support system. Kevin is perhaps the better wrestler, but he can’t handle the mic. David knows how to work a crowd – he can finesse the kayfabe, pump up rivalries, and cut a convincing figure. Kevin can take a beating; a suplex that leads him to being thrown out of the ring and onto concrete where he can’t move, willing himself to rise. Kevin’s injuries mean nothing to Fritz. Just as Doris (Dottie) leaves Kevin to sort out any issues he might be having with Fritz as something that isn’t her business. “Talk to your brothers,” or “That’s up to your father,” are words Kevin hears all the time.

Kevin takes responsibility for his brothers seriously. When he meets his soon to be wife, Pam (Lily James) he tells her, “I want to be with my family. I want to be with my brothers.” The connection between himself and his siblings is consistently undermined by Fritz. Mike just wants to be a musician (and he’s quite a good one – performing the song “Wanna Live That Way Forever”) at a party brimming with the kind of joy lacking in the Von Erich family home. When Kerry returns from training his first instinct is to embrace his brothers and then apologise to his father for not going to the Olympics.

Devastation is all that Kevin sees within triumph. He waits to be put forward by Fritz but is consistently passed over. In many ways that is a blessing as whoever Fritz favours ends up gone. First David, then Mike (who almost dies from sepsis), and finally Kerry who became an addict due to a terrible accident where his foot was amputated and finally from the pressure of living on the road and falling in and out of different federations due to his addictions and increasingly uncontrollable behaviour.

Even at David’s funeral Fritz is berating his sons for mourning him and tossing a coin to see which of them will take his place and bring the belt home to him. The coin falls to Kerry and so too the “curse.” Whatever the Von Erich curse is, or was, it was manufactured by Fritz’s consistent manipulation and ego. He says he wouldn’t wish professional wrestling on any of them – he wanted to be a pro football player. Yet as he plays brother against brother creating rivalries that never needed to exist, Fritz is the avatar of his own family’s annihilation. Kevin becomes so convinced of the curse he refuses to give his sons with the Von Erich name. They are Adkissons. They will not inherit the curse.

Everything you need to know about the Von Erich family is available in detail elsewhere. Durkin’s film plays around with timelines, fact, and fiction. What Durkin wants to give the audience is a sense of the great love the brothers had for each other – a bond that transcends life. He also desires that people understand that the wrestling dynasty was built on foundations that were as fraught and painful as any choke hold. Every time David hears one of his brothers saying, “I’m scared,” it is a death knoll.

Durkin’s thesis is about how healthy masculinity can exist. Kevin’s final scenes with his sons where they tell him it is okay to be scared and to cry is quietly devastating. The next generation is healing the damaged generations of the past. Wrestling is the metaphor – the clash of Titans which is both real and unreal. The punishment and self-punishment that was never deserved but expected. The true cost of winning at any cost should never have meant the deaths of David, Mike, Kerry (in real life Chris also). It should never have meant that a mother is weeping because she has worn the same black dress to the funeral of too many sons and hasn’t had time to get a new one.

Sean Durkin clearly respects the Von Erich brothers. He doesn’t pass judgement on them. Even Kerry at his most manic and destructive is seen through the eyes of the brother who loves him. Combining the perspectives of Kevin, and Pam (the woman who also loved the brothers) and using those to tell the story of the family forges empathy. We believe that the Von Erich brothers will live forever – not just through their multiple sporting achievements, but through their families. The Iron Claw finally provides Zac Efron with a role in which he can be more than a comic foil, song and dance man, or heartthrob. The entire ensemble put together by casting director Susan Shopmaker is perfect (we ignore Jeremy Allen White’s diminutive stature as he gives a towering performance). Holt McCallany as Fritz is truly domineering and at times terrifying in his singular purpose.

The Iron Claw cements Sean Durkin as one of the greats of contemporary psychological cinema. The stark differences between the late 1980s hangout vibes between the brothers and the punishment of the ring (physical, emotional, financial) compound how obsession foisted on the family is too much. “I loved wrestling, and I believed my father, we all did,” is Kevin’s sorrow and the burden on his broad shoulders. The Iron Claw grips the viewer and the pain associated with Fritz Von Erich’s signature move turns to tears.

Director: Sean Durkin

Cast: Zac Efron, Holt McCallany, Jeremy Allen White

Writer: Sean Durkin

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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