THE IRON CLAW Tells the Tragic True Story of the Von Erich Family

During the 1980s, I was introduced to Texas wrestling by older teenage cousins. They were big fans of two late-night wrestling shows aired on Fridays and Saturdays. The Saturday night program was the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling. It was on this show that I first witnessed the wrestling matches of the Von Erichs.

The Von Erich brothers were the heroes in the wrestling arena of heels and heroes. They were my favorite in this particular wrestling league. There was just something special about this band of Texas brothers who had badass wrestling skills, charismatic personalities, and an apparent pure love for their fans and one another. Sadly, behind the scenes, there was much turmoil for the family as, one by one, several of the brothers would pass away–the first one (David) because of illness and the others (Mike and Kerry) because of suicide. Kevin, the eldest of the brothers, has remained the sole survivor of his generation of Von Erichs.

Writer/director Sean Durkin has adapted this heartbreaking and powerful story with his movie The Iron Claw. Zac Efron stars as oldest brother Kevin Von Erich, while Jeremy Allen White portrays Kerry. Harris Dickinson is David Von Erich, and Stanley Simmons is Mike Von Erich. The movie follows the brothers’ lives as they made names for themselves in the World Class Championship Wrestling League in Dallas, Texas.

Following in the footsteps of their ex-wrestler father, Fritz (Holt McCallany), the Von Erich brothers trained hard and supported each other well as they aimed to become true wrestling champs. However, their demanding, hard-nosed father probably pushed them so hard that none knew how to handle defeat and other hard knocks that would eventually break Mike and Kerry’s spirits.

Now, even though I knew most of this story, I was still blown away by both the storytelling and filmmaking of Sean Durkin. Durkin and his crew do exceptional work in recreating this exciting era of professional wrestling but also playing the more personal and intimate moments experienced as a member of the Von Erich family. Durkin immerses his audience in a time capsule and allows us to be flies on the wall of this era and world. It is a rather complex and complicated story, which is difficult to watch.

Durkin deconstructs the upbringing of the Von Erich boys and reveals how nature was overemphasized over nurture. The father, Fritz, only knew how to push his boys hard and was more challenging when they struggled or failed. It is somewhat uncomfortable to see these young men pitted against one another competitively to please their father. And while the boys had a loving mother, Doris (Maura Tierney), she was forced to hold back her nurturing side to avoid “coddling” them too much.

At the same time, the brothers had much love for each other and supported one another. Kevin, the big brother, seems to be the most loving and caring of them all, and he does not seem to like his father’s approach to their raising, nor his approach to running the wrestling league. Zac Efron gives an extraordinary performance and worked tremendously to get into wrestling shape for the role.

Also exceptional in the film is the talented actor Jeremy Allen White, who portrays Kerry. I have been a fan of the actor since discovering him on Shameless. I also marvel at his acting in his newest show, The Bear. As Kerry, White is exciting to watch but is also heartbreaking in depicting his struggles to recover from an unfortunate accident and his problems with addiction and depression. I also applaud the performances of Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Stanley Simmons, Holt McCallany, and Lily James, who plays Kevin’s girlfriend/wife Pam.

The Iron Claw is an outstanding movie that I highly recommend, especially for people like me who grew up watching the Von Erichs wrestle on TV in the 1980s. It is a brutal movie to watch, but still an important one for parents raising their families.

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