A24’s Newest Masterpiece: “The Iron Claw”

“Ever since I was a child, people said my family was cursed.” These lines defined the new A24 film, “The Iron Claw,” a film I assumed to be about the Von Erich brothers and their wrestling legacy as overlooked by their father. When Kevin Von Erich said these words the first time at the beginning of the film, it didn’t mean a lot to me. But as he repeated them after at the end of the film, they weighed on me in my seat, causing emotions I did not expect to feel after watching a movie about wrestling. The Von Erich family was not cursed, but rather wrestling was the curse brought onto this family.

Sean Atkins, the director and writer for this film, decided to tell the story of the Von Erich brothers and bring their legacy to the big screen. While Atkins did take creative liberties to tell the story more effectively, one example being the decision to cut out the youngest brother Chris all together, this tragedy of the Von Erich family was anything other than fiction. The Von Erich brothers in this film were portrayed flawlessly by Zac Efron playing Kevin, Jeremy Allen White playing Kerry, Harris Dickinson playing David, Stanley Simons playing Mike, and Holt McCallany playing the terrifying, yet physically accurate Fritz Von Erich, their father.

The Von Erich brothers were an incredibly famous family of wrestlers during the late 70s and early 80s—a time of toxic masculinity in all aspects of culture. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Burt Reynolds, and Sylvester Stallone all had influences over young men and shaped how they should act and look. For the Von Erich brothers, the man they had to be like wasn’t some big-time celebrity, but rather someone right in front of them: their father. Their father shaped their lives around sports, being the best, and favoritism amongst the brothers. They all wanted to please their father, and wrestling was the one thing that would do that.

As each brother entered the ring, it contributed directly to their downfall. For David, it impacted his health, for Mike, it broke his shoulder leading to his coma, for Kerry it was the introduction of his substance abuse, and for Kevin, it was having to watch all his brothers suffer and eventually have to live without them.

Fritz’s obsession with sports began in his early college days when he changed his major from music to football in a decision to “follow the money.” Eventually, after Fritz couldn’t get the heavyweight title champion belt for himself, he pushed his dreams onto his children. Fritz had an “iron claw” over his boys, pushing to be wrestlers, to be “manly” and business-oriented. Even after David’s funeral, he immediately begins the conversation about which brother will take over for David in the finals, after urging his sons to take off their glasses that allowed them to hide behind their manly persona they should always be putting on.

Zac Efron’s role of Kevin was truly a deserving award-winning performance. As the oldest living sibling, he took it upon himself to take care of his younger brothers. Kevin always knew the impact his father was having on his family, so he saw his brothers as people he needed to protect. The brothers’ bonds were so strong that they were truly each other’s best friends. The scene early on in the film of the family eating outside with Kevin’s new girlfriend Pam Adkisson, played by the lovely Lily James, showed how close the family ties were. When later on in the film we are shown the current dinner table with David’s seat empty and Mike freshly out of the hospital with mental and physical injuries, the family isn’t cheery and close-knit anymore; rather, Pam’s face is full of fear looking at Mike, and Fritz couldn’t even get himself to attend the dinner table. Kevin watched his family fall apart all around him. The fear of the family name attached to the curse was instilled in him for the rest of his life, even allowing his sons to attain the last name “Adkisson,” his father’s real last name. Von Erich was his family’s stage name attached to wrestling.

The women in this film had nothing to do with the sport of wrestling, but they still had to endure the pain that came with it in their family. Pam and the brothers’ mother Doris Von Erich, portrayed by Maura Tierney, both had to watch the family around them fall apart while not being able to do anything to stop it. When we first meet Pam, she is beaming with calmness and confidence. Her confidence holds up throughout the film, but her calmness gets entwined with the family she married into. It’s her confidence and sense of independence in herself that holds up within her own family with Kevin. Meanwhile Doris had no independence from her husband, going along with everything he did to his kids.

At the end of the film, Kevin sits and watches his two sons play football in the yard, a scene mimicking an early one of all four of the Von Erich boys playing football with their father. As the kids play, Kevin sits there crying and delivers the most devastating line of the whole film. When his sons ask why he is crying, he responds with the answer, “I used to be a brother.” To that, his son reassures him that it is okay to cry and that they do it all the time; something Kevin has never heard before as he has spent his life trying to be manly in his father’s eyes. With this, the generational trauma is broken within his sons, and the viewers are reassured that Kevin’s sons will not have to deal with the abuse that Kevin and his brothers did. Kevin is able to begin a new life with his family, leaving wrestling behind him, and give his sons the life that he was not able to live.