Thursday 8 February 2024

The Iron Claw (Sean Durkin, 2023)

In the years since his 2011 directorial feature debut, the impressive and decidedly Haneke-esque Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin has directed just one other feature film—2020's The Nest—prior to his latest effort, the biographical The Iron Claw.  In between his first and second movies, Durkin made the superb miniseries Southcliffe, a harrowing four-parter centring on a spree shooter played by a particularly terrifying Sean Harris.  The Tony Grisoni-penned Southcliffe may well be Durkin's finest achievement, and just last year he returned to the small screen to direct half of the episodes of another acclaimed miniseries: Dead Ringers, a remake/reboot of David Cronenberg's 1988 film of the same name.  Durkin has also produced other directors' films, notably those of Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer, Christine) and Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing).   

The largely 80s-set The Iron Claw charts the travails of a Texan family of professional wrestlers ruled by a fist of, er, iron belonging to patriarch Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), who is at the tail end of a solid career in World Class Championship Wrestling (WCWW).  As Fritz's time in the ring draws to a close, he's keen for his offspring—he and his wife Doris (Maura Tierney) are parents to half a dozen boys—to tag in.  When the couple's firstborn, Jack (Romeo Miloro Newcomer), dies in a freak accident at the age of six, the protective Kevin (Zac Efron) becomes the eldest of five, and as teenagers he and his brothers are pushed towards wrestling careers, irrespective of the varying levels of enthusiasm among the siblings.  Under the domineering Fritz's harsh guidance, the boys achieve a great deal on the wrestling circuit, with middle son Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) becoming the most successful of the brothers.  Sadly, the numerous titles won by the Von Erichs are more than offset by a series of family tragedies.

If The Iron Claw wasn't based on a true story, most would dismiss its plot developments as implausible, but the horrifying truth is that 
at the age of just 35, Kevin was the last surviving son.
  By this stage, Kevin and his wife Pam (Lily James, excellent) had started a family of their own, and the new father was understandably so concerned about the Von Erich line being cursed that he opted to give his first child the real family surname of Adkisson (Von Erich was only ever a ring name).  The physically transformed Efron is outstanding as Kevin, a kind, polite and sensitive man outside of the sport, yet one who poses a formidable opponent to the parade of de facto villains he faces in the squared circle.  Refreshingly, Durkin has opted to film each of the wrestling matches in one long take, and the results are convincingly unconvincing; as is so often the case with the cartoon world of wrestling, the question of authenticity remains unresolved.

Given his CV, Durkin seems an unlikely candidate to helm a wrassling movie—but many of us thought much the same when Darren Aronofsky announced he would be making The Wrestler.  Like Aronofsky's wonderfully bleak tale, The Iron Claw is a wrestling film that packs an existential wallop; that this punishing picture is backed by so-hip-it-hurts indie studio A24 (Midsommar, Uncut Gems, Moonlight) tells you it is likely to be anything but a rote sports drama, and Sean Durkin proves a good fit for a story in which the next misfortune is never very far away.  That said, the writer-director does know when to exercise some restraint, as evidenced by the omission of youngest brother Chris Von Erich—who committed suicide in 1991—from the film; even as it stands, the litany of agony presented in The Iron Claw comes perilously close to having a numbing effect.  Yet the coda is suitably moving, and for the most part Durkin's engaging film possesses a warmth that was all but absent from his previous work.

Darren Arnold

Images: A24