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  • Writer's pictureRua Fay

The Unexpected Brilliance of "The Iron Claw;" A24's New Heavyweight Champion


2023 was a great year for A24 as a studio. Even with films such as Priscilla, Dream Scenario, Talk to Me, and The Zone of Interest winning the hearts of audiences around the globe, one has managed to stand out the most, that being Sean Durkin's The Iron Claw, a biographical film about the most iconic family the wrestling world has ever seen. I was not someone who grew up watching wrestling, and I'm far from an expert on the sport's history, so I went into theaters expecting to see an uplifting sports drama, but in reality, The Iron Claw is so much more than that.

The Iron Claw tells the story of the Von Erich's. A family of wrestlers, starting with their father, Fritz, who raised all of his sons to be champion athletes. The roles of the Von Erich's are played masterfully by actors, Zac Efron (Kevin), Harris Dickinson (David), Jeremy Allen White (Kerry), Stanley Simons (Mike) and Holt McCallany (Fritz). There is not a single weak performance in The Iron Claw, and I found myself completely blown away by everyone involved.

But why the Von Erich's? There's about a dozen other iconic wrestling families to make a film about, so why them? Well, the Von Erich's were said to be a cursed family. The films begins with four brothers, and ends with one. It is believed the curse began when Fritz's eldest son, Jack died suddenly at age 6 in 1959. The film's central protagonist is Kevin Von Erich, the only living member of the family as he watches the members of his family drop like flies due to the pressures of being a champion.

In addition to having a stellar cast, The Iron Claw also has one of the best soundtracks of the year. Featuring artists like Rush, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison, and Blue Öyster Cult. The music does a great job at capturing the feeling of America at the time. For a film filled with so much sorrow, it was nice to be able to experience some great songs along the way.

On its surface, The Iron Claw is a sports movie about wrestling, but in terms of the overall story, wrestling is not the true star of the show. It includes powerful themes of pressure, legacy, lost potential, masculinity, fate, mental health, death, and how far you can push someone before they snap. Throughout the entire film, we see Fritz Von Erich put tremendous pressure on his sons to be wrestling all-stars and eventually, world heavyweight champions. While some of his sons did accomplish this feat, they came with heavy consequences.

The first brother in the film to die is David, who passed away from acute enteritis in his Tokyo hotel room at the age of 25, one week before a big match with Ric Flair. It's even theorized that this death might have been caused by an overdose of painkillers. Despite loosing his second son, in his lifetime, Fritz Von Erich orders the rest of his sons not to shed a tear at the funeral and chalks David's death up to God deciding it was his time to go and there was nothing to be done. It is perhaps the most staggering example of toxic, old-school masculinity we see in the film. Kerry Von Erich is chosen to fight Ric Flair in David's place from a coin-toss his father arranged between him and Kevin.

At this point in the film we have seen Kevin go from his father's favorite champion, to choosing his younger brother David over him to go to the world championship, now his hopes have once again been dashed by a coin toss. Kerry then goes on to become the heavyweight champion of the world. As an audience member, you really start to feel for Kevin, a character who is portrayed as an incredibly caring, hardworking person lose not only his family but his dream.

The only brother who was not initially introduced as a wrestler was Mike Von Erich, the scrawniest member of the family, much more interested in playing in his band than being a superhuman athlete. After David's death, Fritz turns Mike into a wrestler like his brothers, and once again, grooms him to be a future world champion. Soon after, Mike suffers an injury during a match, he is put into a coma, diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome, and suffers brain damage. Under an incredible amount of pressure to be just like his father's favorite son, David, Mike eventually takes his own life.

In the meantime, we see Kevin get married to his wife Pam and have a son. After the death of a third brother in his family, he is now fully convinced that his family name is cursed. We see himself slowly distance himself from his new family and attempt to give his newborn son a new last name in attempt to keep him safe. It's a truly heartbreaking thing to watch develop on screen.

But the tragedy doesn't stop there. Soon after Mike's death we see Kerry, the world champion, lose his foot in a motorcycle accident. This sends Kerry spiraling, pondering his family's supposed curse and considering suicide, an idea he eventually pursued when he shot himself in the backyard of his childhood home. A horrifying sight that Kevin witnessed, having to carry the lifeless body of his only remaining brother indoors.

After Kerry's death, we are treated to a scene of Kerry entering the afterlife, where his brothers greet him with open arms, and he finally meets his oldest brother who died before he was born. It's an incredibly bittersweet scene that left me tearing up in the theater.

The film ends with Kevin Von Erich sitting in his backyard with his two sons. He reflects on the past couple years and finally sheds a tear, something his father made him promise never to do. His sons ask why he's crying and he replies "I used to be a brother, and now I'm not a brother anymore." It's as if an integral part of his soul has been ripped away. His commitment to his family and the pride he took in being a Von Erich is no more. Contrary to what his father would have said, Kevin's sons tell him it's okay to cry and "we can be your brothers." Kevin then gets up and plays in the yard with his boys just like he used to when his family was whole. It's a perfect, bittersweet ending to an emotional rollercoaster of a film.

Director, Sean Durkin often gets asked why he left out the story of Chris Von Erich, another brother who died by suicide in 1991. Durkin says that the last thing the film needed was another tragedy and that it would have been simply too much for audiences. I wish we could have gotten to see Chris' story on screen as well, but I trust Durkin's judgement as a director.

The Iron Claw is a modern masterpiece. It's a story about family, grief, and teh pressure to succeed, yet it disguises itself as a simple sports drama. I loved this film more than I ever thought possible. In my opinion, it is A24's best release of the past year and it will be a very very long time before it fully leaves my mind.

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