' ' Cinema Romantico: The Iron Claw

Monday, February 05, 2024

The Iron Claw

On their first date, Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) tells his future wife Pam (Lily James) that he’s not the oldest brother in his semi-famous family of professional wrestlers because his oldest brother died when he was just six, how one day he was there, and the next, he wasn’t. It’s a moment Efron plays to perfection, not still grieving but almost as if he never grieved at all. Initially seeking Kevin out for an autograph, and almost forcing him into the date, you might have your suspicions about Pam, but this is the moment when her true colors show. She gets up and comes around to the other side of the table, sitting down beside him and giving him a hug as the camera switches to a long shot, infusing the whole room with their warmth and cutting straight through to Kevin’s truth: he’s a guy who just needs a hug.

He’s not getting a hug from his dad Fritz (Holt McCallany), that’s for sure, a former professional wrestler who never earned the championship belt he felt he deserved, laid out in a prologue filmed in black and white that injects a sense of foreboding from the jump. As both writer and director, Sean Durkin forgoes ever employing the word kayfabe, a pro wrestling term indicating that events in the ring are genuine, not staged, taking it seriously, and Fritz takes it seriously too, overmuch, transferring the burden of winning a title in the ring to his sons, all chips off the old block only in so much as Fritz has molded them to be. Like Kevin, who opens the movie by unsuccessfully attempting to rouse his youngest brother Mike (Stanley Simons) for a morning workout, casting him in the image of a thousand sports movie heroes, that if he puts in the work, he will earn his way to the top. That work, though, comes not just in the ring but outside it through showmanship and theatrics at which his younger brother David (Harris Dickinson) proves more potent, causing Kevin’s place in the pecking order to suffer. And if the belt eventually comes home, tragedy does too, as David and Mike and even second-oldest Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) perish one by one in horrifying ways, leaving only Kevin. It’s so much death that despite their mother Doris’s (Maura Tierney) emphatic belief in God, the Von Erichs become convinced of a family curse.

His mother’s religion, though, while cited by Kevin in voiceover as being equally important in their household to feats of strength, never quite feels that way in terms of the movie, coming and going throughout, frequently disappearing altogether, evoking not how “The Iron Claw” bites off more than it can chew but how there is just too much plot to contain in a two hour and twelve-minute movie. Indeed, it was only afterward that I learned there was a whole other Von Erich brother that “The Iron Claw” excises, not wrongly but from dramatic necessity, and explaining why sometimes the brothers can feel more two-dimensional than fully rounded. Then again, Durkin gets around this problem by making Kevin the focal point, the emotional hub, as the introductory scene suggests, and by emphasizing the Brothers Von Erich specifically as a unit. Scenes of them chowing down on fast food in the front seat of a pickup truck while listening to Tom Petty and dancing together at Kevin’s wedding come across as heavenly as “The Iron Claw’s” actual portrayal of the afterlife, the latter so effortlessly true (and without the need for proselytizing) that it feels almost revolutionary for a mainstream movie.

That sun-kissed cinematography of those moments winds up cutting both ways, though, something angelic but also ethereal, like all this is fading even as we watch it happening. Because while this moving sense of brotherly love is a counterweight to “The Iron Claw’s” unceasing tragedy, it is also what their father uses to exploit and undermine them. At the dinner table, he literally confesses to ranking his own sons, and because they are his business assets as much as kids, he has no problem utilizing them as such. McCallany’s performance is as deft as it is disturbing in how he never lets his character detect his own complicity. A scene near the end, in which Doris rekindles her own passion for painting, is as bedeviling as it is moving in the way McCallany has Fritz sit there with a vacuous expression, a man next to his wife who is a million miles away, who can’t see what she sees, who can’t see himself the way others do. In truth, “The Iron Claw” doesn’t entirely either, with an epilogue that seems to view Fritz more lovingly than the movie itself. Even so, it does not undermine the overall punch, both Durkin and McCallany suggesting the nominal family curse is not really one at all, merely the logical result of a father’s toxicity, and tellingly, the triumphant conclusion isn’t in the ring but at home, where the son breaks the cycle.

No comments: