Review by Sean Boelman
The sports movie genre is typically riddled with cliches, but any cinephile who knows the work of filmmaker Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) wouldn’t expect something by the numbers from his latest. The Iron Claw is rightfully being hailed for its emotional resonance, but it leaves much to be desired on other fronts.
The film tells the story of the Von Erich brothers, who became a dynasty in the competitive world of professional wrestling before being struck with tragedy by a supposed “curse.” It’s a story that’s equal parts intense and sad, and while Durkin deserves credit for trying to do something unique and interesting, it doesn’t always work.
The Iron Claw works because of how invested it gets you in the brotherly dynamic. The movie's first half hour is relatively slow as we get introduced to the brothers and see how they have bonded. However, the way Durkin tries to tie this family drama in with the sports underdog story isn’t always satisfying.
Zac Efron’s performance in the leading role is very good, but it’s the type of performance that’s propped up by everyone around him. If it weren’t for his chemistry with the actors playing his family — Harris Dickinson, Jeremy Allen White, Stanley Simons, and Holt McCallany — his performance likely wouldn’t be registering on the radar as much as it is right now.
Yet, while those other actors are good, they are supporting players in the traditional sense. This is Efron’s show, and they are there to give him something to work with. It does subvert expectations in a way, as you’d expect a movie like this to be more ensemble-driven, but Durkin clearly centers this around Kevin.
However, although the family dynamic is compelling, many of the other themes feel disappointingly undeveloped. For example, the brothers’ desire and constant pursuit of living up to their father’s legacy is only mentioned in passing. And one of the brothers’ struggles with addiction is shown but not explored in depth. Diving into these subplots with more depth could have elevated this beyond being an effective biopic into something more.
There are quite a few scenes, though, in which Durkin’s strong command of the camera creates a profoundly emotional effect. One scene shows Efron’s character doing warm-ups in the ring after he receives bad news, and the emotion in this scene — as simple as it is — is extraordinary. Yet these glimpses of brilliance only make it more frustrating when the film reverts to jogging through its beats.
There are many things to like about The Iron Claw, and the parts that Durkin focused on perfecting — mostly the brotherly dynamic — are very good. However, too many parts of the movie feel undercooked for it to walk home a champion.
The Iron Claw hits theaters on December 22.