“I used to have four brothers, now I’m not even a brother.” - Kevin Von Erich
I was twenty-nine years-old when I experienced the first true death of my life. It was my grandmother; she was eighty-six. Up until that point death just hadn’t really been a prevalent force in my world. I’ve grown up with dogs my entire life and have had the unfortunate experiences of watching them perish, often in my arms. Beyond the occasional animal I was what I would consider to be quite fortunate. Then just roughly seven months after the passing of my grandmother my dad died as well. As they say, when it rains it pours. I’ve lived a life that has been fairly sheltered from tragedy only to learn of stories like the calamitous Von Erich family. To say we have lived vastly different lives is a gross understatement.
I’ll own the fact that for as long as I can remember I’ve held the stance that wrestling is fake and for children (Sorry Brandon). While it may be rehearsed and agreed upon beforehand, the act of wrestling and quite vigorously beating the hell out of one another is as real as it gets. And in the same way an athlete playing football or soccer will practice and train both physically and mentally, a wrestler will do so as well. It is, by any measure, a sport; despite what haters like myself have to say about it. The story of the Von Erich family begins with what some might consider an unhealthy adherence to training and the pursuit of their singular vision to be the greatest wrestlers in the world.
That vision would consume the patriarch of the Von Erichs and push him to sometimes do unspeakable things to his own progeny. As a wrestler, Fritz Von Erich never reached his mountain top and saw a second chance at reaching it through his six sons, whose own desires for their futures never came into account for their obsessive father. They would become wrestlers and that was that. Luckily for him his sons idolized their father and wanted so desperately to be just like him. The relationships between the brothers were of a highly competitive nature but undeniably a loving one as well. As much as they performed to outdo one another, they very much held each other up in hopes of reaching the impossible together. Despite the closeness of the Von Erich siblings, it would ultimately be the unwavering demands of their father that would, slowly and then seemingly all at once, rip them apart in horrific fashion.
Before the story we are told begins we learn of the passing of the oldest brother who died when he was only a toddler. This would leave five brothers to carry on the legacy. By all accounts they were destined for greatness in the ring. They were physically imposing, strong and highly conditioned. As performers, they were often the ones to steal the spotlight and carry the night to a successful culmination for both the wrestlers and fans alike. They were in every conceivable way, wrestlers. Hindsight is always 20/20 and the “what ifs” and “could haves” can fly until the end of time about what the Von Erichs could have become had they merely been allowed to let their passions fuel their motivations. But so often the shadow of their overbearing father loomed, and they pushed themselves beyond the limits of what any reasonable human being would consider to be acceptable. Add in so much toxic masculinity like being told men never cry and when they get injured to “just take it” and naturally their mental states would begin to deteriorate greatly. Thus, the tragedies that would define the Von Erich family started and seemed to do so with immeasurable relentlessness and cruelty.
Zac Efron as Kevin is persistent and his devotion to the role is obvious. He is tasked with being the brother who wants to please his father but is also well aware how their father treats them isn’t normal and is often quite callous. Efron is fascinating to watch as his character arc goes from blindly following to seeing the world around them beyond the grips of their father. There is a complexity to the character that Efron plays to perfection showcasing the best performance of his entire career. Jeremy Allen White is quieter than his brothers but arguably more motivated to succeed. White as Kerry is tragic from the moment he’s on screen to his horrifying conclusion stuck in the depths of a shattered psyche. Together the actors as the brothers Von Erich are electric and tragic. They are relatable in their desire to please their parents but are the embodiment of Shakespearean theater where catastrophe would likely be found coursing through their bodies.
At the helm of their nightmare is the father Von Erich, played brilliantly by Holt McCallany. He is vile in moments and delicate in others as he somehow manages to nurture his boys and without warning drop them as if cradled in his arms only to be betrayed and left to fall. He is cruel in his pursuit of the American dream and his boys often seem to be nothing more than tools for him to find the gold at the end of the rainbow that is wrestling glory. Even if that glory is steeped in infamy he strives for it and McCallany portrays the patriarch of the Von Erich family with such convincing fervor. I hope we hear his name come awards season. He deserves the nomination at minimum.
The Iron Claw is about the pursuit of a dream and what happens when nothing else beyond that pursuit matters. At the sacrifice of family, friends and life beyond the ring, the Von Erich family experienced the highest of highs becoming wrestling royalty only to squander it through drug abuse, physical agony and mental instability. In the end the inevitability of their demise hits with a devastating kind of clarity. They were unknowingly on a train track with an engine barreling down on them but for some reason couldn’t hear the impending whistle pleading with them to change course for their own good. This is a heartbreaking story with a surprising amount of catharsis in the end. The silver lining ending in no way negates the weight of such loss, but it does prove that change is possible and cycles can be broken. If you know the story of the Von Erichs you have a pretty good idea of what awaits you when you see it. For the uninitiated like myself, hold on and maybe hug a loved one when it’s over. This is tragedy incarnate.
Rated R For: language, suicide, some sexuality and drug use
Runtime: 130 minutes
After Credits Scene: No
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Holt McCallany, Harris Dickinson
Directed By: Sean Durkin
Out of 10
Story: 10/ Acting: 10/ Directing: 8/ Visuals: 8
Buy to Own: Yes
Check out the trailer below: