The Pitch: The Von Erichs were one of professional wrestling’s greatest dynasties, dominating the ring in the 1970s and 1980s with the gift of good branding (a group of tight-knit brothers and their legendary wrestler father), killer kayfabe, and their signature move, the “iron claw.”
But outside the ring, the Von Erichs struggled against a string of personal tragedies: As father Fritz (Holt McCallany) pushed his sons further and further along the pipeline to a world championship, one brother after another — David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and youngest Mike (Stanley Simons) suffered one horrible twist of fate after another.
And in the middle, there’s the oldest surviving brother, Kevin (Zac Efron), living with the grief of seeing the so-called “Von Erich curse” lay waste to his family. At the same time, he struggles against the ambitions of his exacting, career-minded father — and the fear the curse will pass down to his wife Pam (Lily James) and their children.
My Four Wrestling Sons: Writer/director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Nest) has always seemed, in part, interested in the power structures of family — how they uplift and stifle us in equal measure, especially when in the stranglehold of a domineering father figure. With The Iron Claw, those concerns are writ large in a suitably big, tear-jerking melodrama, one that feels ripped right out of an Arthur Miller play.
From its opening scene, a black-and-white wrestling match that feels like the NWA borrowed a page from Raging Bull, The Iron Claw sets the stage for a family both uplifted and destroyed by the competitiveness of professional wrestling. Father Fritz (McCallany, a study in calculated paternalism) is a stern taskmaster whose idea of supporting his boys is to pit them against each other for his approval. “I rank all you boys, you know that,” he says early on, “but the rankings can change.” It’s clear that he sees Kevin et al as an extension of his own failed wrestling career: Their successes are his and damned if he isn’t going to do everything he can to put a World Championship belt in the ranch house he shares with his boys and wife Doris (Maura Tierney).
Second Oldest Brother Syndrome: But coloring the granular rankings and subtle manipulation of their father is the brothers’ deep, abiding love for each other, which Durkin plays out with remarkable charm. Each brother exists on a sliding scale between their own dreams and those of their father: Kerry’s Olympic dreams (dashed by Carter’s decision to pull out of the 1980 Olympics due to the USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan) and Mike’s love of music.