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“The Iron Claw” Grips Us with Tragedy

Written by: Hannah Tran | December 20th, 2023

Film poster: “The Iron Claw”

The Iron Claw (Sean Durkin, 2023) 3½ out of 4 stars.

If The Iron Claw’s modern American tragedy of the Von Erich wrestling family wasn’t true, it would be unbelievable. In reality, director Sean Durkin (The Nest) cut out an entire member of the family to make their decline just slightly more palatable for the framework of a movie. Despite these changes, Durkin crafts one of the most moving and sincere films of the year. This reverent portrait of a crumbling dynasty unfolds in the deserving hands of its cast, who perfectly capture the highest highs and lowest lows of a family where nobody can emerge truly victorious.

What makes the eventual plummet so impactful is how real the stakes of the film feel. The effortless bond between the central brothers is immediately charming. There is a beautiful simplicity to their connection in the film’s early scenes, but the presence of their domineering father and nearly absent mother overshadows so much of it.

l-r: Lily James and Zak Efron in THE IRON CLAW. Credit: Brian Roedel ©A24

These relationships are brought to life by the sublime performances of the ensemble, all of whom push forward the story with palpable intensity and tenderness. Zac Efron (Baywatch) was born to play the main brother, Kevin, who is grounded by the actor’s understated, observational turn. The rest of the cast, which includes the talents of Jeremy Allen White (The Rental), Harris Dickinson (Triangle of Sadness), Stanley Simons (Angelfish), Holt McCallany (Nightmare Alley), Maura Tierney (Beautiful Boy), and Lily James (What’s Love Got to Do with It?), delivers an impressive amount of depth in their varying degrees of screentime. Together, they construct the complex structure of the family in a way that feels painfully true and perfectly serves the larger emotional framework of the story.

The writing is generous to each of them in this regard. The dialogue is clever, awkward, and sentimental at all the right times. Within the expectations placed on them by their father, the wrestling community, and themselves lies an absurdity that makes for a surprising number of funny moments. But once the family begins to unravel, so does the screenplay. The second act feels somewhat directionless, but it pulls itself together by the final act to deliver a quiet gut punch of an ending that feels like the perfect monument to the family and to the unique bond of brotherhood in general.

l-r: Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson in THE IRON CLAW. Credit: Brian Roedel ©A24

The filmmaking, on the other hand, never falters. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (The Nest) captures a nostalgic feel and striking perspectives that add so much to each frame of the film. The costumes and music go hand in hand with this. And the editing is noticeably thoughtful in the way it wordlessly draws meaning from cut to cut and heightens the energy of fight scenes by knowing when to resort to more rapid pacing and when to let a single take play out.

There is an overflow of feeling in The Iron Claw, whether it be with joy, disappointment, grief or peace. The latter of these is the one the characters struggle with most, and the course of that struggle is what makes The Iron Claw such an unforgettable, affecting portrait of the real lives in and out of the ring.

Zak Efron in THE IRON CLAW. Credit: Brian Roedel ©A24

Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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