★★★★★ - EMPIRE
- A heavyweight collective has just entered the ring -
From its opening moments, as Zac Efron’s muscular wrestler heaves himself out of bed and moves to within inches of the camera, The Iron Claw — based on a true story — announces itself as a film about burden. Efron has always been poster-boy fit, but as Kevin Von Erich, the oldest son in a wrestling dynasty, he’s theatrically, uncomfortably buff; the product of years of intense training stipulated by his embittered father (Holt McCallany), himself a faded wrestler still looking to overpower an industry that chewed him up and spat him out.
Kevin’s brothers join him at various times in the ring throughout their story. David (Harris Dickinson) assumes the role of showman with his knack for fighting talk. Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) is a former Olympic-qualifying athlete. Mike (Stanley Simons), the youngest son, is a gentle-natured musician. All believe that they carry with them a family curse, one that has led to multiple tragedies over generations.
As a collective cast, the four actors are exceptional, making every word of their sparse dialogue count, and imbuing their on-screen brotherly bond with warmth and sincerity that stands firm against their father’s hardened methods of parenting. White’s pensive presence, paired with his broad, sloping physicality, works well against Dickinson’s playful façade and Efron’s more stoic performance. In the ring they move in harmony, the camera marvelling from afar or swooping artfully overhead as if it were capturing ballet.
Writer-director Sean Durkin has a small but mighty body of work — beginning with 2011’s devastating Martha Marcy May Marlene — but here he steps up in terms of scale and ambition, presenting the performative (and sometimes genuinely violent) world of wrestling as a thing of tragic beauty. The Iron Claw is in many ways a ghost story — even the living are not all entirely there at times — and Durkin works with The Nest cinematographer Mátyás Erdély to bring a dark, haunted quality to the boys’ world as they wrestle with their demons outside of the ring.
As the Von Erichs’ fate takes an increasingly heavy toll on Kevin’s burly shoulders, Efron’s performance travels further into wholly impressive new territory. That all-American wholesomeness lingers from a career of playing teen heartthrobs and frat-boy types, but here he leads with vulnerability and navigates the film’s rapid emotional blows with an authenticity that feels totally lived-in. Paired with his astonishing physical performance, this is undoubtedly him at career-best. The Iron Claw is a film about burden, but it endures as a powerful ensemble piece weighted by Efron’s extraordinary evolution.
- Beth Webb, EMPIRE
The Iron Claw is now playing at Light House Cinema!