The Iron Claw (2023)
Director: Sean Durkin
Screenwriter: Sean Durkin
Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Stanley Simons, Holt McCallany, Maura Tierney, Lily James
The latest film from Sean Durkin, the respected writer-director behind The Nest, begins with close-up shots of lead actor Zac Efron’s bulging body getting out of bed. Efron’s skin is so tightly fixed to his pectoral muscle, his shoulder, his bicep, that veins are protruding as if hieroglyphs representing his character’s dedication to his craft. His is a body you do not build across four days a week at the gym, this is the result of a lifetime’s dedication. He looks as if sculpted out of stone, his every crease, bulge and pore representative of his sacrifice; of body, of mind, of time. It is an enticing first glimpse at a transformative lead performance, but more importantly it communicates that professional wrestling isn’t just a performance art, it’s a discipline.
The Iron Claw tells of a personal story so astoundingly tragic that it is hard to believe it ever truly happened. To do so, it skips through the ins and outs of the wrestling profession at a quite rapid pace, offering just enough for newcomers to understand that wrestling is more pre-determined than fake, and that for every so-called “fake” punch there is a 10 foot drop onto planks of wood or a neck-and-shoulder-first fall onto a concrete floor. Those who perform in this most unique throwback of a touring circus act must eat and live their art as if professional ballet dancers, only with much less respect from the wider cultural space for the pain, suffering, and sacrifice they must offer to do what they do. If this Sean Durkin project outlines anything, it must be that professional wrestlers ought to be more highly respected.
Zac Efron plays professional wrestler and Texan celebrity Kevin Von Erich, the oldest living brother of the Von Erich family. His dedication is to his craft, and that comes with early morning runs, a strict diet, and a lot of pressure from his pushy father, Fritz (Holt McCallany). His brothers – David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) and Mike (Stanley Simons) – fall under the same lengthy shadow that their retired-wrestler father casts, and together the brothers struggle against Fritz’s expectations and perspectives.
The film gets its title from the wrestling manoeuvre Fritz Von Erich once made famous – a submission hold in which he would put his opponent’s head in a one-handed vice-like grip and squeeze until they submitted – but it more powerfully comes to represent the power the Von Erich family patriarch has over his sons, the metaphor being that they are locked in a vice-like grip they can’t escape from just like Fritz’s opponents used to be in the much more fictional world of professional wrestling.
There is much to respect and admire about the way Durkin presents this central power dynamic, and more to unravel in his use of iconography and metaphor. The writer-director remains focused on the real family at the heart of his story, choosing to avoid any sports movie tropes that might glorify their sacrifices and tragedies. At no point is a huge story beat followed by a triumphant wrestling performance; and, while the wrestling itself is utterly convincing and cinematic, it is never made to look like a profession to aspire to get into. The wrestling ring in Durkin’s movie is a place of pain, suffering, and loss (be that blood, sweat, or tears).
There is a likeness to Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-nominated wrestling movie staple The Wrestler in how the wrestling in this film is presented with dialled back colour palettes and uses camera pans and quick cuts to emphasise the brutality in the ring. Comparisons to that movie are inevitable given the subject matter, but Durkin’s film is also married to the 2020s standards of high-end independent projects that its distributor A24 has got behind before. Outside of the ring, it has more in common (visually) with 2023 A24 release Dream Scenario than it does the handheld grey-and-blue presentation of Aronofsky’s film, Son of Saul (2015) cinematographer Mátyás Erdély adding another strong entry into his growing repertoire and ensuring a meaningful visual presentation that doesn’t overstep and take away from the true purpose of the piece: the story.
Similarly, the music chosen by music supervisor Lucy Bright is memorable and unique whilst importantly distancing itself from the golden hues of nostalgia, and her work in bringing Little Scream to the table for the film’s original song “Live That Way Forever” offers the film a motif that evolves in meaning as the story unravels. Together with the work of Richard Reed Parry (Eileen) on a moving score, and Kourtney Alexander and Matthew Chan on sound, The Iron Claw features a memorable and impactful soundscape that will help the emotions contained within its story to linger in your mind.
The Iron Claw is a well-performed ensemble piece that is written with greater meaning than may first be apparent, designed for the screen with great talent and perspective, and is a unique and memorable audio-visual experience. Zac Efron is fantastic in offering glimmers of hope and innocence through painful expressions, and the supporting performances of will-be stars like Jeremy Allen White (‘The Bear‘) are worth the price of admission alone, but this is a film so deeply affecting that come the final bell it is the haunting true story that will stick with you. This quite remarkable two hours of insight into this fascinating and largely unexplored performance art will do precisely what the memes have suggested: it will make you cry. Sean Durkin just made possibly the best professional wrestling movie of all time.