In the 1970s and 1980s, Saturday nights at the Dallas Sportatorium was the home to a regional wrestling outfit run by Jack Adkisson and dominated by his sons, known as the Von Erichs. Jack himself wrestled as Fritz Von Erich, he had middling success and never won a world heavyweight belt, a fact that rankles so much he’s made acquiring it via his sons his entire personality.
His sons, in turn, have made appeasing their father their entire personalities, and would it shock you to learn almost all of the Von Erich boys died young and tragically? The “Von Erich curse” is shorthand for the string of tragedy that plagued the Adkisson family, but it could also be taken as a warning about the ills of toxic masculinity, generational trauma, and truly sh-tty parenting. Filmmaker Sean Durkin makes it the centerpiece of his latest film, The Iron Claw.
Holt McCallany plays Jack Adkisson with such seething resentment it seems a vein is permanently bulging from his forehead. This is a man incapable of celebrating anything and who openly ranks his sons’ place in his (dubious) affections. He would be a caricature of malignant fatherhood except for how this exact type of dad shows up on the sidelines of all sports, across generations, instilling anxiety disorders and crushing self-esteem everywhere he goes. Jack rules his family with an iron fist, brow-beating his sons into pursuing wrestling whether they want to or not and rendering his wife all but mute.
Central to Durkin’s story is Kevin Von Erich, played with a discombobulating mix of beefiness and vulnerability by Zac Efron, who is truly giving a transformative performance. It’s not just his obvious body transformation, Efron is so effective as Kevin that by the time he finally cries, you simply have to cry along with him, his stifled emotions choke the viewer, too. Kevin is quick to clarify that he is the “second oldest” Von Erich, as his eldest brother, Jack Jr., died in childhood as the result of a tragic accident (mercifully offscreen). Of all Jack’s surviving sons, of which there are four (the film dispenses with youngest brother Chris, who died by suicide at age 21 in 1991), Kevin is the most determined to succeed as a wrestler.
But he’s not the best suited to the gig. David (a virtually unrecognizable Harris Dickinson) has the charisma, bailing out Kevin in post-match interviews when Kevin struggles to deliver the kind of exciting trash talk that drives the drama of pro wrestling. Then there is Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), the most athletic of them all, a would-be Olympian whose dream—and Jack’s—is crushed when President Jimmy Carter decides the US will skip the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Kerry then ends up joining the family business, and soon the Von Erichs are poised to dominate pro wrestling in the 1980s.
Except it all starts to go wrong almost as soon as it gets good. Kevin manages to snag a wife, an ambitious woman named Pam (Lily James), who might be a gold digger, it’s unclear if she’s just really attracted to Kevin or his local fame because Durkin is totally uninterested in Pam as an individual and James has little to do in a classic “thankless wife” role. At the wedding, David starts vomiting blood, so you know what happens next—he dies in a hotel room in Japan. Kerry, then, becomes the focus of Jack’s thirst for success, and youngest brother Mike is thrust into the ring, despite his interests lying more in the cinematography and music direction. One wonders what Jack Adkisson could have built had he simply recognized and valued his sons’ actual talents, especially as pro wrestling was evolving into the television powerhouse it became in the Eighties.
The Iron Claw runs a relatively lean 130 minutes, which means once the “Von Erich curse” takes hold, it unfolds rapidly. A terrible wrestling injury hospitalizes Mike, where he barely survives toxic shock, and then he dies by suicide seemingly as soon as he’s discharged. Kevin, meanwhile, is terrified to go home and expose his newborn son to the family curse, and Kerry becomes addicted to painkillers following an amputation, and his return to the ring, where he wrestled in the World Wrestling Federation for years on a prosthetic foot, which very few people knew about. There’s an entire other movie to be made about Kerry Von Erich and the behind-the-scenes brotherhood of wrestlers who kept his secret until after his death.
White is solid as Kerry, but again, the script doesn’t serve him well. He has little to do beyond mope and snort crushed painkillers. The Iron Claw succeeds as well as it does because the actors come through and lift up Durkin’s uneven script, which speed runs the final tragedies that affect the family. Efron ably anchors the ensemble, bringing an almost meditative quality to Kevin’s grief, and the brothers’ love for one another is always tangible, even when Jack is pitting them against one another. Dickinson especially stands out, effortlessly projecting David’s charm, whether it’s encouraging Mike’s pursuits or taking the spotlight in the ring. Maura Tierney also makes a mark in her own thankless wife role, pursuing her lips just tightly enough to aptly suggest a woman who has swallowed a lifetime of her own disappointment in order to be a dutiful wife, until grief strips away any semblance of giving a sh-t.
Durkin’s script could be better balanced between the brothers, but the acting elevates what is there, and Zac Efron, especially, does great work as a man devastated by loss and his own father’s toxicity. The film is a horror show of loss, but the ending provides a catharsis, and none of the deaths are portrayed gratuitously. Durkin and the cast approach the Von Erichs with care and sincerity, and even when the parts are underwritten, respect for the family is plain. The actors are so good, though, it’s hard not to wish they had a little more to do, all around. The Iron Claw is a wrestling movie, a biopic, a cautionary tale that falls short of being truly haunting.
The Iron Claw is in theaters exclusive from December 22, 2023.
Attached: Zac Efron in SoHo on December 18, 2023 in New York City.