From the moment I first heard of A24’s planned biopic of the cursed Von Erich wrestling family, The Iron Claw, my ears were in a state of permanent perk-up. I live in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, and while I didn’t grow up here, I did grow up an obsessed pro wrestling fan (by way of Mid-Atlantic/NWA and ‘80s WWF). I’d heard of the Von Erichs, of course. I read Pro Wrestling Illustrated on a regular basis, after all. And to this day, practically everyone around here still fondly remembers the Von Erichs and has memories of smoky evenings in the Dallas Sportatorium.
However, I won’t pretend to be a Von Erich historian by any stretch of the imagination—merely a lifelong wrestling fan with a peripheral knowledge of the family history both in and out of the ring. With that in mind, I was privileged to attend an advanced film screening at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas. So, let’s dig in.
The Iron Claw tells the incredible true story of the famous Von Erich wrestling family, who became household names in the brutally competitive world of 1980s professional wrestling. Family patriarch and well-known heel (bad guy) Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany; Mindhunter) fathered six sons who went on to follow their father’s footsteps into the world of pro wrestling, with varying degrees of success. The film focuses mainly on hyper-driven Kevin Von Erich (Zach Efron; The Greatest Showman), the lone surviving son, while spending a still considerable amount of time with prodigious David Von Erich (Harris Dickinson; Where the Crawdads Sing), former NWA World Champion and WWF Intercontinental Champion Kerry Von Erich (Jeremy Allen White; Shameless), and aspiring musician turned wrestler Michael Von Erich (Stanley Simons; Angelfish). There is no mention in the film of Chris Von Erich.
If the goal of The Iron Claw is to have you walking out of the theater lost in a mire of emotion over just how tragic the whole story is, then its mission is accomplished. While that kind of goes without saying, it’s also fair to say that writer/director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) is looking to yank on those heartstrings, with an unflinching approach to what it was like for these men to toil under the yolk of “the family business”, run by a tyrannical and obsessive man who was determined to see at least one of his sons achieve what he feels he was screwed out of by the powers that be. Durkin perfectly captures that pressure and gives it an intensity that keeps you on the proverbial edge of your seat.
On the technical and cinematographic side of things, The Iron Claw is a triumph. The deft blend of top-notch set design, costume design, and soundtrack place you firmly in the 1980s world of professional wrestling in Dallas. It’s an extremely well-shot film, with highly competent in-ring action that had all the right people behind the scenes making it all body slam you with appropriate force (including wrestling legend Chavo Guerrero and even AEW World Champion Maxwell Jacob Friedman). This is a wrestling fan’s film.
Still, this is less a “wrestling movie”, and much more of a story of the pressures of being in a family lorded over by a heavy-handed father who lives vicariously through his sons and can’t let go of his glory days. Multiple scenes are also stolen by Doris Von Erich (Maura Tierney, ER) as she endures tragedy after tragedy and loses son after son while still having to endure being the silent partner to Fritz. It’s powerful stuff and requires a tissue or two.
The film’s real triumph is in the casting department, however. Zac Efron’s transformation for this film is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and his continued development as an actor is a pleasure to watch; this is NOT the kid from High School Musical! All of the brothers are perfectly cast from a physical appearance perspective. The pairing of Kevin and Kerry Von Erich is the beating heart of the film—Jeremy Allen White has been proving since his turn as Phillip “Lip” Gallagher in Shameless that he’s one of the best young actors in Hollywood today. All of the wrestlers were spot-on (big props to Cazzey Louis Cereghino as the late, great Bruiser Brody and Kevin Anton as Harley Race)… except for the casting of Aaron Dean Eisenberg as “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair; his cadence and delivery just didn’t fit the bill. But my nerdy, wrestling geek ass digresses…
A24 and Sean Durkin have set the standard for wrestling biopics with The Iron Claw. I hope we get to see more of these in the future—after all, is there a world more ripe for drama and tragedy both in front of and behind the camera than the world of professional wrestling?
You don’t have to answer. That was rhetorical.
‘The Iron Claw’ is in cinemas from December 22nd, 2023.