Kevin Von Erich never believed in his family’s so-called “curse”. A wrestling dynasty built, tendon by tendon, by Kevin, his brothers, and their father Fritz in the early Eighties – and existing as a supposed monument to invulnerable masculinity – they were felled by a series of tragic accidents and premature deaths. It would have been hard for the wrestling world to rationalise what had happened without looking inward, to take a look at the impossible demands it placed on these men. So, as usual, it mythologised them. “It’s ridiculous,” Kevin would say in 2019. “What happened was just a terrible, terrible thing, but no curse.”
For The Iron Claw, director Sean Durkin’s version of the Von Erich story, the “curse” feels like both figment and reality. His film is a moving, sentimental work that also chills to the bone, powered by the inevitability of tragedy when familial loyalty becomes tethered to self-destruction.
It begins with a promise: the Von Erichs, already hit with the loss of one son in a childhood accident, sit in their station wagon after one of Fritz’s (Holt McCallany) matches. “Nothing will ever hurt us again,” he vows. He will train these boys never to submit, and never to break: Kevin (Zac Efron), with his veins bulging out of his skin; David (Harris Dickinson), who’s confident on the mic; Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), in training to throw discus at the Olympics; and Mike (Stanley Simons), the poet of the family, who’d rather strum guitar in his garage.
Durkin wrote his script without consultation, choosing to contact the family afterwards and shortly before filming began (Kevin has publicly supported the film’s release). Kevin, here, believes wholeheartedly in the curse’s existence. And Chris Von Erich, Fritz’s youngest son, has been excised from the narrative, details of his life now conflated with his brothers’.
But these are choices made with intelligence and compassion, and McCallany’s disciplined performance understands Fritz to be far more than his cruelty. He’s a man who’s invested too much into the idea that his progeny can save him, and that each blow they take in the ring is proof they were made to survive. Our attention, here, is drawn not to the showmanship, but to the snapping, tearing, and bruising of bodies. Kevin, David, Kerry and Mike do their best to live as ordinary boys do – cinematographer Matyas Erdely dreamily captures beers and roughhousing in the backyard, and a late-night escape out of a bedroom window – yet these brothers bear the worn and scarred flesh of Hercules en route to his final labour.
In The Iron Claw, the tragedy is in the detail, and in an audience’s queasy feelings of intuition when it comes to how sad stories tend to play out. Efron, White, Dickinson and Simons render grief in all its shades. But it’s Efron, his outrageously muscled body made beatific with a Joan of Arc bowl cut, who softens the film’s harder knocks with a performance of disarming tenderness. “Look at my beautiful brothers,” he tells Pam (Lily James), his sweetheart, as he watches them from a distance. He says it with such simple pride.
Dir: Sean Durkin. Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Stanley Simons, Maura Tierney, Holt McCallany, Lily James. 15, 132 minutes.
‘The Iron Claw’ is in cinemas from 9 February