Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Iron Claw (2023): A Review



There are many people today who believe in "the Kennedy Curse", the idea that the Massachusetts political dynasty is fated to suffer great tragedies, the agony and the ecstasy as matriarch Rose Kennedy described it. There is another apparent curse on another family of renown. The Von Erich wrestling family, going on its third generation, is also plagued by the idea of a curse. The Iron Claw is their story, one of misery, failed expectations and more misery. 

Wrestling patriarch Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallaney) wants to move both his career and his family up to the upper echelons of life. He pushes his four living sons (his oldest, Jack Adkisson, Jr. having died in childhood) into the wrestling world, building a dynasty to challenge all newcomers. The oldest living son, Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) is the most proficient in the ring. The third son, David (Harris Dickinson) is the tallest, his height giving him strong advantage. The fourth, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) is the shortest, but is training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The last son, Michael (Stanley Simons) is the outlier in this muscular clan, more interested in music than in the iron claw (the family's signature wrestling move). 

Nevertheless, Fritz will not be denied. The Von Erich boys have a mix of love, respect and probably fear of Fritz. Their mother Dottie (Maura Tierney) will not interfere between Fritz and the boys or really be involved with them, at one point informing Kevin that if he wants to discuss anything, that is what his brothers are for.

Kerry is forced to return to Texas when President Carter pulls the U.S. out of the Moscow Games, cutting his own dreams out. Soon, he too enters the family profession. Fritz sees to it that David and Kerry join Kevin in the ring, though not getting Mike into things for the moment. Kevin also manages to get married to Pam (Lily James), the only brother to do so or to have anything close to a life outside the ring.

Fritz feels frustrated in not achieving the ultimate prize of a world heavyweight championship and knows his sons can bring the belt home. However, this goal is deadly for almost all the Von Erich boys. David's career is quickly ended when he dies suddenly due to a ruptured intestine while on tour in Japan. Kerry does win the belt, but drunkenly drives out, causing him to lose his right foot. Mike seems ill-suited for the profession, being thin and generally gentle in spirit. The Von Erich legacy, however, pushes him to dip his toe into the ring with disastrous results. A freak shoulder injury leads to toxic shock during surgery, leaving him in a coma. Barely surviving that, he seems mentally incapacitated and frustrated.

By now, Kevin's paranoia about a "Von Erich curse" is so great that he insists on his children carrying the family legal surname of Adkisson to avoid said curse and moving away from Pam. Curse or no curse, the Von Erich boys are consumed by tragedy. First Chris and later Kerry commit suicide. Kevin's injuries are emotional rather than physical, but no less crippling. After Kerry's suicide, Kevin finally agrees to sell the family's wrestling organization despite (or perhaps because of) Fritz's fierce opposition. Kevin can heal, and Dottie can now go back to painting, her long-lost passion rekindled.

I am not a wrestling fan, but I must admit that the Von Erich name does echo in my memories. The Iron Claw would be a good introduction to this fabled family, but perhaps writer/director Sean Durkin loves the subjects too much to let us fully into their world. I admit to sometimes getting muddled as to which brother was which save for Kevin. I think that is due to how The Iron Claw gave us bits of David, bits of Kerry, and bits of Mike but they still were a bit opaque. Apart from preferring music to smacking stronger men, what got Mike to join in the family business? A sense of guilt over David's death? Intense pressure from Fritz? A combination?

What pushed Kerry to kill himself? We get a very bizarre to downright creepy scene where Kerry goes into a sunset world where he reunites with David, Chris and even Jack whom he never met. The overt symbolism of leaving a coin on the boat, like if he was paying an invisible Charon, is troubling to me. I could not shake the idea that somehow this was almost encouraging suicide in the idea that it is a good way to reunite with loved ones dead and gone.

I am absolutely positive that this was nowhere near Durkin's intention, or anyone involved in The Iron Claw's intention. However, the entire scene, even if it is Kevin's vision, still felt very disconcerting to me.

The Iron Claw also makes the case that rather than a curse, it was a collection of poor decisions that led to the Von Erichs myriad of miseries. David was aware that he was ill. Kerry went out driving after having celebrated his victory (which we did not see but just heard announced). As we see shots of the highway, one already knows he is bound for trouble. The next scene immediately jumps to back injuries. We are not surprised when we see Kerry using crutches. The big surprise is when we see him without a foot. Chris' dilemma of going into the ring, barely touched on if that, comes and goes.

Sometimes, The Iron Claw is surprisingly quiet and removed from things. The search for Chris is literally kept at a distance. After seeing him swallow so many pills and wash it down with alcohol, I was genuinely surprised that he was able to leave the house. Try as the film did, I never could muster much interest in this dysfunctional family.

That is not to say that The Iron Claw does not have some positives in it. This is probably Zac Efron's best work to date. As Kevin, we do see in Efron's performance Kevin's inner struggle to be the man his father aspires him to be as well as his terror of the Von Erich curse. He is more than matched by James' Pam, though I think it was a mistake to sideline her for long stretches to where I forgot she was in the film. Same with Tierney, for Dottie was both not a major figure and almost maddeningly mysterious. Whatever her feelings or emotions at the loss of so many of her children, or how her faith helped her, are not shown or answered.

Curiously, while the film suggests that the family had some kind of faith system to sustain them, whatever it was apparently played no part in their lives. They can have crosses around the house and attend Services, but judging by the film it was not important to them. 

The Iron Claw also does well in capturing the aesthetic of the late 1970s and early 1980s wrestling broadcasting, down to less bombastic but still grand pre-and-post match interviews. The spectacle of even lower-tier wrestling was well shown. We also get a nice scene where in David's debut, tag-teaming with Kevin, their opponents go over with them prior to the match how things will go. 

It is not all perfect here, however. Aaron Dean Eisenberg's efforts at playing Ric Flair did not go over very well. Even with my limited knowledge of wrestling, I was nowhere near convinced that Eisenberg's performance could match the real Flair's theatricality or Flair on any level.

The Iron Claw wants to be a tribute to the troubled Von Erich family. It, I imagine, also wants to delve into their world. I still feel a bit left out of things. I think a documentary would have done better. 



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