(director/writer: Sean Durkin; cinematographer: Mátyás Erdély; editor: Matthew Hannam; music: Richard Reed Parry; cast: Maura Tierney (Doris), Holt McCallany (Fritz Von Erich), Zac Efron (Kevin Von Erich), Jeremy Allen White (Kerry Von Erich), Harris Dickinson (Harris Dickinson), Stanley Simons (Mike), Lily James (Pam, Kevin’s Wife), Scott Innes (Ring Announcer), Aaron Dean Eisenberg (Ric Flair); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Tessa Ross, Juliette Howell, Angus Lamont, Sean Durkin, Derrin Schlesinger; A24; 2023-in B/W/color)

“It’s an honest film that delivers a few underhanded blows to the head in the name of fake pro-wrestling.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A melancholy family drama on the real-life pro-wrestling Von Erich family, who were plagued by numerous personal tragedies but still made a name for themselves as a wrestling dynasty. Three of the family’s four brothers posthumously were admitted to the wrestling Hall of Fame in 2009. It’s deftly written and directed by Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”/”The Nest”), with an eye for what makes a dysfunctional family so driven to be successful no matter the cost. The film’s message is that paternal wishes can often be harmful to the children.

The title is derived from the signature move of the wrestler Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), that was called The Iron Claw. It was an unmovable grip on the face meant to paralyze the opponent as he lies on the ground.

While growing up, tragically only one of Fritz’s 6 brothers survived.

It’s hard to watch the unrelenting macho wrestling story without thinking of the characters as winners who might actually be losers. But the well-crafted film is executed with great realistic fight scenes and offers some marvelous performances. It’s an honest film that delivers a few underhanded blows to the head in the name of fake pro-wrestling.

Fritz’s dream to reach wrestling nirvana is passed on to his adult children, who became popular wrestlers in the 1970s and 1980s. With the obsessive Fritz weirdly numbering his children by his preferences for them, as the children do everything to please their unbearable coach/father.

Early on, the film is shot in black-and-white. It goes to color after the opening scene, and it features the Texas residing Von Erich family, made up of the ambitious and single-minded Fritz (who changed his surname from Adkisson
), trying for a better life as a pro-wrestler, and his stoical and cold wife Doris (Maura Tierney) taking care of the housework.

It shows there is an unbreakable bond established between the brothers as they ban together against the world and their domineering, bullying and abusive father but without ever disobeying him.

The film’s narrator and most decent brother is the oldest one named Kevin (Zac Efron), the showman wrestler brother is David (Harris Dickinson, Brit actor) and, dad’s favorite is the Olympic wrestling hopeful and youngest one, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White). Their emotionally complex father meanwhile has become a fight promoter living vicariously through his sons, who gets a lucrative TV deal for the family.

Lily James plays the devoted fangirl Pam, who pins Kerry down and marries him.

The fourth brother is the musically inclined Mike (Stanley Simons), who dad coerces to be a wrestler after the painful death of David, and as a result he commits suicide.

The film does a good job getting the wrestling scenes just right, and delivers a powerful family drama about a family losing their bearings in the real world while looking for glory and riches in the fantasy world of sports.

REVIEWED ON 12/20/2023  GRADE: B