The Iron Claw

Movie poster for "The Iron Claw," based on the true story of the rise and fall of an all-American wrestling family and released by A24 Films. (OSV News photo/A24 Films)

NEW YORK (OSV News) – A cautionary tale unfolds in “The Iron Claw,” (A24) based on the true story of the rise and fall of an all-American wrestling family.

In the expanding universe of professional wrestling in the 1980s, the Von Erich clan from Texas was the stuff of legend. Patriarch Fritz (Holt McCallany), a one-time champion, built an empire around his four strapping sons: Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), Mike (Stanley Simons) and Kerry (Jeremy Allen White). “The Iron Claw” leaves out a fifth son, Chris.

Success in the ring does not come easy, and Fritz more than earns his “Nazi heel” moniker. In fact, he changed the family name from Adkisson to Von Erich to project an evil atmosphere. Domineering and relentless, he pounds his sons into submission, playing favorites, hurling insults and encouraging sibling rivalry.

His God-fearing wife, Doris (Maura Tierney), refuses to intervene, turning instead to prayer. She is still mourning the tragic loss of their first-born son, who drowned at six years old.

Fritz’s motivation is a selfish one — to acquire for the family the world championship title he never won. He teaches his sons his signature move, the “iron claw,” a vice-like grip of the opponent’s head, applying pressure to the skull and temples until, writhing in pain, he submits.

Initially, Fritz’s sinister methods bear fruit, and the script follows the progress of the four brothers on the professional circuit. David and Kevin are a successful double act, until Fritz chooses the less-talented David to wrestle for the championship, to Kevin’s dismay.

Sensitive Mike, who prefers music to sport, is a reluctant entry into the family business, bullied into acquiescence by his father.

Meanwhile, Kerry has chosen a different path, becoming a successful discus thrower. When his hopes for Olympic glory are dashed due to the 1980 embargo, Kerry honors his father and enters the ring. His rise is meteoric, even after his foot is amputated (amazingly, knowledge of his prosthetic foot, inside a boot, is hidden from the public).

At the heart of the story is the now-popular myth of the “Von Erich Curse.” As narrator, Kevin tellingly explains, “Ever since I was a child, people said my family was cursed. Mom tried to protect us with God. Dad tried to protect us with wrestling. He said if we were the toughest, the strongest, nothing could ever hurt us. I believed him. We all did.”

They were wrong, as writer-director Sean Durkin reveals in heartbreaking detail, and championship belts are acquired at unfathomable personal cost. Of all the brothers, only Kevin eventually begins to see the truth and a way out, thanks to his perceptive new wife Pam (Lily James).

Viewers should be warned that “The Iron Claw” showcases every one of the Seven Deadly Sins in excess, and is not for the squeamish. However, the movie has its merits, with important life lessons for thick-skinned grown-ups, from the over-glorification of sports heroes to the consequences of greed, envy and pride.

The film contains mature themes, including suicide, implied premarital sex and masturbation, brief rear male nudity in a nonsexual context, drug use, at least one profanity and a few rough terms. The OSV News classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.


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