Triumph and tragedy form an inseparable tag team in writer/director Sean Durkin’s (Martha Marcy May Marlene) emotional chronicle of the Von Erich clan, a close-knit family of sibling wrestlers whose rise to prominence in 1980s Texas was accompanied by a remorseless, almost Shakespearean succession of setbacks.
Giving their sport a level of respect not often granted, the film calculates the cost the boys paid trying to live up to their father-slash-coach’s exacting standards – a price that made each of them genuinely fear that their surname came with a curse.
Named for a head-gripping palm move that patriarch Fritz (Holt McCallany) made his signature during his time in the ring, The Iron Claw is upfront from the start about wrestling’s choreographed fakery. Yet it also gives its practitioners their due by showing both the arduous training required to mould their muscular physiques, and the risk of serious injury they face even when partaking in pre-scripted theatrics.
The most startling transformation here is Zac Efron’s, the High School Musical heart-throb resembling Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk as the ambitious, if somewhat charisma-light, Kevin. Yet Durkin’s saga is very much an ensemble effort that ensures all of the brothers – blond-haired trash-talker David (Harris Dickinson), thwarted Olympian discus-chucker Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and amiable wannabe musician Mike (Stanley Simons) – get their moment to shine.
That each fleeting snapshot of glory comes with a cruelly inexplicable postscript gives Durkin’s follow-up to 2020’s The Nest a chilling fatalism (not for nothing does Kevin insist that the son he has with Lily James’ veterinarian, Pam, has his mother’s maiden name on his birth certificate).
At the same time, though, the film embraces the camp world the boys operate in, with its baying audiences, pantomime villains, and lurid Spandex outfits. DoP Mátyás Erdély brings his camera in tight during the body-slamming action, so much so that you can almost smell the baby oil. Yet he is capable of great lyricism, too: an idyllic scene of the brothers spending a lazy day on the river pays off later on with a reunion that’s as poignant as it is unexpected.
Efron may be top-billed, but there is equally fine work from McCallany as the fam’s tyrannical taskmaster and Maura Tierney as the withholding mother behind him. Only James feels a little out of place, her vivacity striking a discordant note in a story so permeated with misfortune.
The Iron Claw is in US theaters now and in UK cinemas from February 9.