Out of the Celluloid Closet

This Zac Efron-led wrestling drama is a sweaty, tragic masterpiece

Director Sean Durkin likes to take his time between projects. His first directorial feature, the fantastically haunting Martha Marcy May Marlene, came out in 2011. It wasn’t until 2020 before Durkin gave us another film with the Carrie Coon-led drama The Nest. In between, there was the brutal 2014 British miniseries “Southcliffe,” about how one night of gun violence destroys an entire community forever.

But it’s all to the good—you need just about 10 full years to recover from a Durkin experience. Take, for instance, his latest masterpiece, the Zac Efron-starring The Iron Claw, a muted, O’Neill-esque biopic of the Von Erich wrestling family.

Let by wrestling titan and bully extraordinaire Fritz, the true story of the tragic Von Erich family unfolds simply and without melodramatic flourish. We meet the Von Erich brothers as happy young men enjoying a carefree adolescence in Texas, until one by one they’re persuaded to enter the wrestling ring by Fritz, a man who can’t give up his legacy. But for all the glory the family accumulates in the ring, tragedy waits permanently in the wings, claiming the lives of all but one of the six Von Erich children. Zac Efron plays Kevin, the haunted survivor of the family line and the one most desperate for his father’s stubbornly withheld approval.

Efron’s emotional performance is the beating heart of a film that can’t help but bleed, a convincing and fittingly tragic indictment of toxic masculinity. He’s the only who’s spared death in the ring or by suicide, and the survivor’s guilt he carries with him nearly eats him alive. Co-stars Jeremy Allen White (The Bear) and Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats) play Efron’s equally-talented brothers, and once we see the chemistry between them, we already know how hard it’s going to be to feel their loss. It’s rare to see a film where siblings are portrayed as soulmates, but that’s what drives the tragedy of the Von Erichs home in the end. When you’re lucky enough to be born into a family of people you can actually love, how much harder is it to lose them, one by one, to completely avoidable circumstances?

But perhaps the most painful part of The Iron Claw is the brothers’ fawning worship of Fritz, the patriarch who keeps forcing them into impossible traps of masculinity from which they can only escape by dying—usually of suicide. In the end, it takes Kevin having a family of his own—and sons of his own—to begin to heal the wounds he sustained under Fritz’s roof.

It’s the kind of movie that every son should see, if only to remember that we’re not in this alone. Families wound, but those wounds can, if not heal, at least begin to close, as the beautiful ending of The Iron Claw reminds us.

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