Review: ‘The Iron Claw’ is touching, memorable, and utterly heartbreaking

The Iron Claw, written and directed by Sean Durkin, is the newest release from A24. It covers the Von Erich family’s rise to wrestling fame and all the subsequent heartbreak and suffering that plagued them. When it comes to curses, you can usually define them as bad luck or evil that surrounds a person. It can be due to something that happened to them or even somebody else intentionally trying to send negative things to the cursed. When someone feels cursed, it’s usually a feeling of dread and that superstitious and supernatural forces are at work against them. 

A wrestling dynasty plagued by tragedy

Back in the 1980s, there was a team of wrestlers, the Von Erich family, comprised of a father and his sons, who were befallen by many tragedies, making many wonder if they were indeed cursed. The Iron Claw, named for Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), the family patriarch’s signature wrestling move, is about their lives. It stars Zac EfronJeremy Allen WhiteHarris Dickinson, Stanley Simons, Lily James and Maura Tierney as the rest of the clan.

The Iron Claw is undoubtedly the saddest movie I’ve seen in 2023, and I’ve seen well over a hundred films for this calendar year. While I’ve never been a huge Zac Efron fan, he got jacked up for this role and surprisingly shows some real acting prowess. I’ve never been into wrestling either, but this film sucked me in with the devastating series of events that happen to this single family; your heart goes out to these poor Texas folk. While the film overall is a bit of a downer, you might want to take some time with The Iron Claw’s family this holiday season. It might just make you appreciate the time you have to spend with yours a little more.

The story of The Iron Claw

There are spoilers ahead for The Iron Claw.

We begin with the words “Inspired By A True Story,” arriving white against the black screen. Then, a black-and-white sequence follows as a wrestling ring in the middle of an arena becomes illuminated by overhead lights. A second shot of Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) begins to overlap with the initial view of the empty ring. We watch his upper shoulders and face begin to take over the screen, his mouth stretched wide in a grimace as he struggles for a moment against an unseen opponent. As the scene changes, we watch another minute or two as Fritz storms around the ring before finally giving his opponent his signature move. The Iron Claw is when he grabs his opponent’s head in his hand and applies pressure, squeezing the man’s skull. 

Raising his claw hand high, Fritz parades around the ring before we go to his locker room post-fight. When he emerges from the venue where the event took place, his pregnant wife Doris (Maura Tierney) and two of his boys are waiting for him. The boys come running over to him and he scoops them up in his arms. As they walk to their car, his wife inquires about what happened to their old car and why there’s a new Cadillac hooked up to their mobile home. 

Fritz Von Erich’s mantra for success

Fritz explains that he’ll make it work. He spoke to the promoter and that he has to look like a wrestling star if he wants to make it big like a star. As Doris continues to express her concern over the purchase, Fritz turns towards his two boys in the back seat as he explains, “The only way to beat it is to be the toughest, the strongest, the most successful, the absolute best.” 

After the introductory black-and-white sequence fades to black, we skip to when the three oldest boys are in their early twenties. The film switches to full color, and we see some Texas farmland in the early morning light. The scene switches, and we see the sleeping Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) lying in bed, the old alarm clock immediately beeping as a wake-up call. 

As the close-up shot of Kevin waking up lingers, he eventually peels the quilt off his impressively sculpted body before the camera gives us a new angle of the room. We watch him get out of bed in his tighty whities and get the full showcase of his chiseled abdominal muscles as he tries to wake his brother up for a run. Kevin runs, then lifts weights, and finally, we get glimpses of him in an actual wrestling match; the two men grapple with each other for the title of Texas Heavyweight Champion. After winning, Fritz comes out into the ring to congratulate his son, tell him he’s proud of him, and remind him that “tomorrow you’re back and working harder than ever.”

A deep sibling bond for the Von Erichs

The following day, at the breakfast table, we meet two of Kevin’s brothers, David (Harris Dickinson) and Mike (Stanley Simons), as they eat. This is the first time we observe Fritz trying to motivate the skinnier Mike by holding his brother’s successes over him. Fritz’s ability to be a caring provider for his family is only matched by the pressure he puts his children under. He constantly instills in them the desire to seek greatness and follow in his wrestling footsteps. 

This is also where we learn about the bond and love shared between these brothers. Their camaraderie is really something special. They lean on each other for support even while their drive to outperform others always hovers over their self-esteem and self-image. But as the film gets into its second act, Fritz’s toxic and domineering parenting style of ruling his household with an iron fist, or claw if you will, as he is unquestionable in any decision he makes,  all eventually begins to take its toll on his sons’ mental stability.

Sean Durkin’s direction outshines his screenplay

The Iron Claw was written and directed by Sean Durkin, whose direction for the film outshines the perfectly serviceable screenplay. Durkin instills in us the pressure that hangs over the Von Erich boys, to succeed and rise in the admiration and esteem of their father. The dialogue and the depiction of some scenes where Fritz speaks with his boys perfectly convey this.

The skillful direction of Durkin combined with the acting of Holt McCallany as Fritz provides the basis for the earth-shattering events that level this family in the second half of the film. While McCallany is great in his role, his efforts are matched by Zac Efron’s leading performance. Besides being totally ripped for the role, the depth and complexities of this character whose world around him is slowly ripped away show us a side of Efron’s acting we’ve never seen before. I truly hope the High School Musical alum has turned a corner in his career, keeps taking these roles, and continues working with more serious directors and stories. 

While the original score by Richard Reed Parry is solid, like the screenplay, it won’t win any awards or get any critics’ prizes. But it does a fine job keeping pace with the rest of the film as its almost classic rock-esque anthems kick in with the highs the movie reaches but then turn more dramatic and melancholic as the film gets into the somber final act. Speaking of pace, the film covers quite a bit of ground in its little over two-hour run, and I never really felt the pacing drag much due to the intelligently structured story. 

Final thoughts on The Iron Claw

Several films got to me this year and moved me to shed some tears, but as I mentioned, The Iron Claw was the saddest. That might not be what you’re looking for over this holiday season, but anytime a film can get me this emotionally invested and care about what I’m seeing to that level, that’s a sign somebody did something right.

I love hearing about what real people and families have gone through, their life experiences, and lessons learned, even when it breaks my heart. General audiences and critics alike will find a wonderfully touching, memorable, but utterly heartbreaking experience awaits them when The Iron Claw steps into the ring.

The Iron Claw is now in theaters

The Iron Claw is now playing in theaters. Visit the A24 website for the film to learn more about it and to find out where to buy tickets.

Are you a wrestling fan? Have you watched The Iron Claw yet? What did you think? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below or by connecting with us on X @MoviesWeTexted.

For another perspective on the movie, Elliott Wishnefsky shared his thoughts on The Iron Claw earlier this month.

If you’re just looking for more A24 films, check out all of our A24 reviews and news.