This is #CineFile, where our critic Rahul Desai goes beyond the obvious takes, to dissect movies and shows that are in the news.
The Iron Claw is a sublimely crafted biographical drama of the Von Erich family, the American professional wrestling family responsible for the glory years of the WCWA (World Class Wrestling Association) in the 1980s. The title refers to the signature move of patriarch and WCWA owner Jack “Fritz” Von Erich (Holt McCallany) during his own wrestling days — a skull-crushing submission hold featuring five different points of pressure on the opponent. In context of the story, the title also refers to the mind-crushing hold that Fritz — whose in-ring persona was a pantomime Nazi villain — has over his five very different sons. We see four of them in the film: Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) and Mike (Stanley Simons).
Texan champ Fritz Von Erich never quite made it to the hallowed halls of national wrestling, so like most domineering fathers, he forces the boys to inherit his incomplete dream. He wants them to be noticed in the ‘big league’ at any cost. His claw digs deep into their flesh and blood — turning the Von Erichs into a tragic embodiment of generational trauma, parental rot, dysfunctional fellowship, sibling rivalry and American showbiz. At times, it resembles a bleak survival thriller, where there can only be one ‘winner’ after years of professional strain, personal setbacks and toxic masculinity. The oldest, Kevin, thinks he is the protagonist, just like Kendall Roy thinks he is the central character of Succession. Ultimately, unlike the show, the film seeks freedom from the fictions of winning and losing. All that’s left is the reality of being.
The technical prowess of The Iron Claw is off the charts. In many ways, the validation of being shut out of Oscar season makes Sean Durkin’s film all the more alluring. The writing presents the Von Erichs as athletes whose sport is entertainment. They train and aspire and rise and fall like actual wrestlers in pursuit of actual triumph and greatness; it’s as if the pre-scripted arcs of their ‘characters’ in the WCWA are incidental to their ambitions. Here’s where the business of “professional wrestling promotions” comes to the fore. The men may all be performing to a broad narrative, the drama may be staged, but the real-world stakes exist. The storylines reward those with greater skill, talent and box-office value by fast-tracking their journey to the top. The popular wrestlers get the better scenes and myths.
One must therefore earn these title shots as a whole package — politically, socially, culturally — if not entirely in the ring. Even true-life fatalities get written into the weekly action. For instance, a weaker contender is propelled into the limelight after losing a family member, because his grief becomes an irresistible device to seduce the fans. (Remember WWF legends Brett and Owen Hart?) Fritz leans into his reputation as a Vince-McMahon-esque dad, writing himself into the events as the ruthless ‘manager’ of his sons. The gimmick is that they’re a combative family up against the no-holds-barred tricks of the outsiders. As a result, it’s unnerving to hear Fritz vow to bring the glittering world championship belt home. He wants his boys to ‘win’ it all. Translation: He wants them to transcend the NWA territory system and conquer global imaginations.
The camerawork is perceptive — flitting between long and tight frames, handhelds and stillness, warms and colds — depending on whether it’s capturing performances or performances within performances. The shot-taking understands the difference between belief and make-believe, thereby lending a visual language to a family torn between truth and roleplaying, doing or dying. Most of the Von Erichs are so used to putting on an act, a figurative mask, that they subconsciously behave like their alter-egos at home. Holt McCallany gives Fritz this ring of theatricality — his expository tone and booming voice bleeds into his identity as a father and trainer. He doesn’t speak to people; he seems to address them on an imaginary microphone. Jeremy Allen White plays Kerry as two distinct men: The disillusioned Olympian who loses his career, and the Von Erich wrestler who loses a limb. There’s a marked difference in gait, melancholy and angst from one persona to the next. The night he wins the title, his family’s joy is eclipsed by his sadness of excelling at a quasi-sport. Harris Dickinson is beautifully understated as David, the easy-going sibling who uneasily wears the crown. Stanley Simons excels as Mike, the sensitive artist who is brow-beaten by his macho father into ‘manning up’.
But it’s Zac Efron who becomes the undisputed heavyweight champion of The Iron Claw. The High School Musical star is almost unrecognisable as a bulked-up and frustrated Kevin (bringing to mind Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher) — a striver whose sense of family is challenged by the arrival of love and grief. Efron owns Kevin’s tension with his father, the distance from his very Christian mother (a stoic Maura Tierney), the camaraderie and envy with his siblings, the hesitant companionship with his wife. Despite the unhealthy competition manufactured by Fritz, the brothers are connected through the shared experience of emotional fracture and prosthetic spirit. It’s no small deal that the actors mostly do their own stunts, transforming into eerily convincing pro-wrestlers without flaunting their blood, sweat and tears.
The Iron Claw is no ordinary biopic, though. The most fascinating thing about it is its inherent relationship with storytelling. The film itself unfolds within the parameters of wrestling entertainment. The lives of the family become indistinguishable from a long-running plotline in the sport. They don’t just behave like characters, they exist like them. Their reality starts to morph into the blockbuster fiction they represent. The signs are everywhere. The father adopts the insider-versus-outsider, us-against-the-world mentality to maintain the shackles. Early on, we see Fritz telling the boys at breakfast that each of them can climb in his ‘rankings’ — his favourite son will keep changing, subject to their charisma and determination. More notably, every tragedy in the family is attributed to the workings of the famous Von Erich Curse — a religious manifestation of the parents’ persecution complex. Instead of taking accountability for their own poor parenting, they chalk it all up to a jinx. Looking for answers in the divine is one way to explain the mortality of choice. Religion is their licence to seek refuge in the senselessness of being.
This superstition — and by extension, their faith in a higher power — is a version of the pre-written ringside drama that “bumps off” multiple Von Erich sons. The randomness of luck (an atheistic sibling of superstition) plays a role as well: When Fritz chooses between two sons for a title shot, he tosses a coin. We don’t explicitly see any of the deaths either, similar to the way characters get written off the WWE when they become unavailable. They just disappear from public view. At some point, it almost feels like fate is conspiring to push an out-of-favour Kevin towards a championship belt; the other brothers keep succumbing to the fickleness of ‘network entertainment,’ leaving him to capitalise on the underdog storyline. It’s there for him, on a platter. He is trapped within this predetermined web of pleasure and pain, even cutting off from his wife and child so that they escape the whims of his family curse.
But Kevin’s conflict remains rooted in his ability to battle his myth and find his own truth — to wrestle back control of his demons, his destiny and future. It’s no surprise that love softens him. His wife Pam (Lily James) gatecrashes his life, activating a heart under all that muscle, a soul beneath all that borrowed skin, often making him look like the hero of The Truman Show who starts to notice the discrepancies of his programming. (Fritz is his Christof, his life creator and executive producer.) Pam would be the ‘villain’ — the pesky outsider — in many a WCWA gag, but she’s more of a subtle reckoning here. She doesn’t jostle for space in the Von Erich legacy so much as search for a new one. At one point, she even thinks that she’s lost Kevin after he attends yet another family funeral; that their love story stands no chance against this family narrative of chance. Most stories might have built up to the crescendo of Kevin winning the championship belt by executing the Iron Claw. But this is almost an anti-biopic, where crying becomes an act of great resilience; where adult tears evoke a climax where Truman hits an ocean wall with an exit door in it. It’s not about dreaming and winning; it’s about waking up and scripting a last-ditch defeat. It’s about acknowledging that the curse — that bloody opponent — lies within. It’s about escaping the claw and retaining the shape of the head.