To Be a Brother
The Iron Claw explores the depths of professional wrestling’s greatest tragedy.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
The late Windham Rotunda, better known as wrestler Bray Wyatt, once wrote that professional wrestling is “an escape. A reason to point the blame at anyone but yourself for two to three hours. An excuse to be a kid again, and nothing matters except the moment we are in.” In the 80s, wrestling was far more of a cultural phenomenon than it is today. Compared to when wrestling promotions were regionalized, the 80s saw a monopolization of the industry by a select few companies, namely WWE. At this cultural peak entered the Von Erich family, ultra-acrobatic showmen of the wrestling world. However, their family legacy is not defined by their accomplishments or talents, but instead by the “curse” that follows their name. In the new A24 film, The Iron Claw (2023), director Sean Durkin, alongside a star-studded ensemble cast, brings the nightmarish story of the Von Erichs to the big screen.
The film opens with Jack Adkisson Jr. (Holt McCallany) in the middle of a match under his ring name—Fritz Von Erich. At the end of the match, Fritz showcases his finisher, coldly known as “The Iron Claw.” That moment symbolizes the film’s overarching theme that continues to be fleshed out for the next two hours. Jumping decades into the future, viewers are introduced to a now-grown Adkisson and four of his adult children: Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and Michael (Stanley Simons).
Laced with tragedy, The Iron Claw makes no effort to sugarcoat the suffering of the Von Erich family. Marketed as a wrestling movie, many viewers did not expect to watch a heartfelt film about the choreographed motions and emotional baggage of half-naked men. The film tackles themes like obsession, abuse, abandonment, loss, and suicide, highlighting both the emotional and physical torment these brothers had to face. Jeremy Allen White gives a hard-to-watch yet captivating performance as Kerry, conveying the pain of both addiction and relentless attempts to please his father. Zac Efron arguably gave the best performance of his career as Kevin Von Erich, powerfully delivering a character ridden with emotional torment as the oldest brother of the family, watching helplessly as his siblings struggled and fell one by one. The film captures the depths of human tragedy at the forefront of sports entertainment.
The film’s greatest strength is its portrayal of brotherhood, which is boosted by the incredible ensemble performances. From the start of the film, the development of familial relationships is meaningfully emphasized. Scenes where all four brothers sneak out at night so they can let Michael play with his band at a university, or them dancing at Kevin’s wedding exemplified their deep brotherly bond. For the majority of the runtime, the film is shot from the perspective of Kevin, but the movie still successfully manages to connect all the brothers to viewers by emphasizing the emotional impact each of them has on Kevin. The film also utilized quippy dialogue to establish relationship quirks between its characters. In particular, a scene between Kevin and his mother discussing Fritz’s supremacy over Michael—almost as if they were soldiers comparing military rank—shows the personalities and connections between four different characters. Kevin’s overprotectiveness, the mother’s indifference, Fritz’s abuse, and Michael’s escapist nature. As the movie progresses, the film develops these character traits and emotional connections between the brothers, inducing an unrelenting love for the bond between the Von Erich brothers from its audience.
However, even with its focus on close-knit familial relationships, The Iron Claw still addresses the experience of living with the toxic expectations of an overbearing parent. Washed up and living vicariously through his children after failing to become the NWA World Champion (the most prestigious title in the wrestling industry at the time), Fritz Von Erich sustained an iron grip over his sons. Fritz in the beginning of the film ranks his sons, basking in the fact that his love is conditional. This, alongside his assault on his sons during “ring training,” paints him as the film’s main antagonist. This theme of unhealthy, obsessive parenting ties back into the movie’s clever title: The Iron Claw. The move is a vicious grip on the opponent’s head which squeezes their brain, a metaphor for the grip both wrestling and Fritz have on the family.
Controversially, The Iron Claw left out one member of the Von Erich family, the sixth brother and wrestler: Chris Von Erich. The exclusion of Chris left a bad taste in the mouths of wrestling fans, finding the decision to be disrespectful of Chris and his legacy, though the only surviving brother, Kevin Von Erich, was at peace with the exclusion. When asked why Chris’ story was not covered, director Sean Durkin said that the emotionally-heavy film “couldn’t handle another tragedy,” as it would have become over-stuffed by a similar story of abuse in the wrestling industry already covered by the narratives of the other brothers. However, critics argue that this exclusion builds a disturbing wall between the film and the complete legacy of the Von Erichs. Writing this film as if he had never existed is inconsiderate to the real man whose dream was to make his mark alongside his brothers.
Set in the performative world of professional wrestling, the ensemble cast and direction of this film tell the story of four loving brothers and how their lives are destroyed by the shallow allure of stardom. In an interview with Seth Meyers, Jeremy Allen White revealed that Kevin Von Erich’s one demand for the film was “to make sure it was clear how much he loved his brothers,” which was certainly achieved. As the movie releases across the country, director Sean Durkin should be proud of the justice The Iron Claw achieved for portraying the loving relationships of one of the greatest professional wrestling families to ever step into the ring.