On February 18, 1993, the wrestler Kerry Von Erich shot himself on his family’s ranch. He’d turned 33 two weeks prior to ending his life. He was a one-time world champion in his career and had enjoyed the kinds of thrills that his contemporaries could only dream of. He was handsome, with a body carved out of marble. (He’d once been considered for the role of Ivan Drago, the Russian superathlete in Rocky IV.) In his personal life, he was a recently divorced father of two young daughters whom he feared becoming estranged from. He’d lost his right foot in a 1986 motorcycle accident, was struggling with an addiction to painkillers, and was likely facing jail time after multiple arrests.
His death was another part of the sad, slow-motion tragedy that had consumed his family. His brother Chris had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound less than eighteen months earlier, at the age of only 21. Another brother, Mike, who, like Chris, had struggled during his wrestling career, died from an intentional drug overdose in April 1987 at the age of 23. David, the most natural performer in the family and the one most observers had pegged for real stardom, had died in 1984 under mysterious circumstances at the age of 25 while on tour in Japan. (Yet another brother, Jack, had died in 1959 at the age of six after a tragic accident.) Only one brother, Kevin, managed to survive the inferno.
The story of the Von Erich family is an American-sized tragedy. To stare it in the face for any length of time is to take a hard look into an unending kind of loss. “With David, it was like a really low kick, terrible,” Kevin told writer John Spong for a 2005 feature in Texas Monthly. “To this day, I’m not over that. Every death after it was just ‘Oh, this again.’ Losing David—that one kind of burned down the mission, you know?” That all this horror unfolded against the backdrop of the intentionally opaque, willfully bombastic world of professional wrestling imbues it with an added aura of unbelievability, but the facts remain. “The story is so crazy,” wrote journalist Dave Meltzer in 2006, “that if someone were to have written a Hollywood movie about it, it would have been tossed because it stretched way beyond the realm of plausibility.”
And yet, with The Iron Claw, director Sean Durkin has managed to turn the Von Erich nightmare into a respectable film. Though it has its fair share of sour notes that can almost leave you howling in disbelief — the scene of Kerry’s death, in particular, bloodless and with its soft-edged vision of cowboy heaven, might have been flown in from a bad western — you’ll find yourself remembering instead the brief moments of beauty it manages.
The film’s title refers to the family signature ring gimmick, a hold that was a kind of Vulcan death grip applied to an opponent’s forehead. Each Von Erich son was to have inherited knowledge of just how to apply it from their father, the promoter and one-time wrestler Fritz. The film’s title could have easily been The Iron Fist, which Fritz comes to rule his children with. When The Iron Claw opens, he is still a journeyman wrestler. In the ring, he’s as bad as they come. Once outside the arena doors, he’s a seemingly loving husband and father who promises his wife and children they’re on the path toward a better life. That promise lands them on a sweeping 500-acre ranch in East Texas, where Fritz has established himself as the czar of the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling.
Depending on which sources you believe, he provided his sons with an upbringing that was something between an issue of Boys’ Life and a remake of Lord of the Flies. Asked by D Magazine’s Skip Hollandsworth in 1988 if he was ever too hard on his kids, the real Fritz responded, “Absolutely hell no. One time Kerry yelled at me that he shouldn’t get a beating, so I tore his butt off even harder.” In the same piece, Kevin recounts being a boy and asking other children if they wanted to fight, “not because we were picking on them, but because we thought it was the natural thing to do.” “You can’t live your life through your kids,” wrestler Lou Thesz said to journalist Irv Muchnick, who covered the family for a 1988 Penthouse article. “Fritz never understood that.”
The Iron Claw ignores all that and picks up the story after the children are grown, their hulking bodies and loving camaraderie almost too much for the family home to contain. But Fritz controls them all the same. As played by Holt McCallany in a remarkable performance, Fritz gives off a raw, quiet menace. He’s like a lumbering Frank Booth crossed with Patrick, the cult leader played by John Hawkes in Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. (To gain their father’s favor, the boys are even required to adopt Von Erich as their surname instead of the family’s true surname, Adkisson.) Despite his age and sagging physique, Fritz remains imposing. He moves like you imagine a once-dangerous grappler might slow but with force and purpose. Even when at rest, he seems ready to attack.
Unloving and unrelenting, he dreams of the day each of his sons will take their turn as national stars. He ranks them like they’re Division I football teams and lets each know exactly where they stand in his estimation. But privately, he is forever adjusting to whatever new obstacle he finds himself running into, endlessly frustrated by the forces he can’t seem to control: fellow promoters who don’t respect him, a government that spoils his family’s chance at Olympic glory, children whose bodies break down, the cruel obsolescence of age.
As Fritz’s doomed children, Stanley Simons as the tragic Mike, Jeremy Allen White as the hypercompetitive lunkhead Kerry, and Harris Dickinson as the preternaturally gifted David are excellent. (Chris, the real-life youngest brother, is not included in The Iron Claw.) David comes to shine thanks to his explosive personality. Kerry benefits from his athletic prowess and good looks. Mike struggles to find his way into the family business or a way out. The brothers fight to both win Fritz’s approval and provide each other with unquestioning support. In one remarkable sequence, their faces seem to overlap and blend into one another, as if they’ve lost track of where one brother starts and the others begin.
The Iron Claw’s biggest challenge is working around the question mark at its center. The script portrays Kevin, played by Zac Efron, as a man with no inner life, or at least none that he knows how to access. He’s befuddled by the tragedy unfolding around him and convinces himself that it results from some kind of family curse. When he receives the news that David has died from a ruptured intestine while overseas, he asks his father, “How can this happen?” It’s hard to discern whether he’s asking a physiological or philosophical question. He only shows signs of life when he’s around his eventual wife, Pam (Lily James). When she takes him into a tender embrace on their first date, he responds as if he’s never known compassion. In time, he lashes himself to her in an attempt to escape his assumed fate.
It sells short the easygoing allure of the real Kevin. With his scratchy baritone voice and long Texas drawl, Kevin comes across as a man possessing a particularly valuable secret. You don’t think for a minute that he’s unsure of his thoughts and feelings. Despite everything he experienced in and out of the wrestling ring, that two of his sons went on to become professional wrestlers is an inconvenient fact that The Iron Claw sidesteps.
In her hallucinatory, haunting The Virgin Suicides, director Sofia Coppola told the fictional story of five teenage sisters who take their own lives in less than a year. She covers a vast continent of emotional territory in just a little over ninety minutes, laying bare the messy emotional lives of a neighborhood full of adolescents. The girls’ eventual deaths hit you with the force of a swinging sledgehammer. “None of my daughters lacked for any love,” remembers their domineering mother, played by Kathleen Turner, as she leaves the family home for the final time. “There was plenty of love in our house. I never understood why.” Clocking in at over two hours, with vastly more exposition and far fewer messy emotional truths, The Iron Claw doesn’t achieve the same kind of poignancy. Perhaps unsure of how far down audiences would follow him, Durkin merely glances at the void.
But the loss seeps through the cracks all the same. Played by an excellent and underused Maura Tierney, Fritz’s longtime wife, Doris, sits quietly in the eye of the storm. Initially, she seems complicit in Fritz’s need to dominate his family. Though her tragedies mount, she becomes desperately sympathetic to her children’s struggles. Watching her adult son Kerry wrestle for the world championship on television, she turns away, imagining him instead as a toddler standing on the staircase behind her. Later, faced with the realization that the black dress she has to wear to Mike’s funeral is the same one she wore to David’s, she comes apart. The Iron Claw doesn’t know what to do with all this emotion, but in these moments, we get a glimpse of the quieter, more lyrical film that might have been.
“I have been tempted to surround them,” the real Doris said of her children in 1986, “to just put them all in a circle and handcuff them together and not let anybody leave.” She’d only lost two of them when she said that. The three more tragedies that would befall her family couldn’t have been imagined and would lead her to eventually leave Fritz. The Iron Claw ends with her making her first move to separate herself from her poisonous spouse. It’s a quiet gesture of defiance, more heroic than any of her husband’s supposed wrestling victories. Fritz can only stare in stunned silence. For once, his words and strength are no good to him.