'The Iron Claw' Has No Grip
Sean Durkin's biopic about the Von Erich wrestling dynasty never holds the pin for a full three-count.
The bizarre and sad story of the Von Erich family is a sterling example of truth being stranger than fiction. Fritz Von Erich (né Jack Adkisson) was a successful professional wrestler starting in the 1950s. By the time he retired from the ring in the early ‘80s, he was a promoter and the owner of successful independent league. He and his wife, Doris, had six kids, all boys. Their oldest, Jack Jr., died by unintentional electrocution when he was seven, but the surviving sons - Kevin, David, Kerry, Mike, and Chris - all followed in their father’s footsteps… and in just under a decade, four of those five sons were also dead, most before the age of thirty. More tragic still, three of those four died by suicide. And, oh, did I mention one of them also lost a limb in an accident years BEFORE he died? And that three of Fritz’s grandkids grew up to become pro wrestlers despite everything that happened? You simply cannot make this stuff up.
In 2011, the Von Erich’s tragic tale was the subject of a documentary, Heroes of World Class: The Story of the Von Erichs and the Rise and Fall of World Class Championship Wrestling, which is highly informative, if lengthy and unpolished.
It seems like a fair assumption that writer/director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) has seen Heroes of World Class, as used it as research when making The Iron Claw, his new biopic of the Von Erichs. Alas, Durkin’s film is only so-so. He positions the narrative as a domestic psychodrama, at once a Shakespearean saga of a cruel father of his adoring sons and a love story between doomed siblings. But The Iron Claw falls victim to the same trap as a lot of movies “inspired by an incredible true story,” rushing through critical emotional events and skimming over crucial character beats in order to squeeze as much of the story as it can into 130 minutes. Consequently, it never really holds the pin for a full three-count. It feels more like a dramatization of a Wikipedia page than a fully fleshed-out movie.
The Iron Claw has a lot of issues, including being vague about how things actually work in professional wrestling (thus denying us the vicarious kick of peeking behind the curtain into a world most of us will never see). But its biggest flaw, far and away, is that it fails to turn the Von Erichs into engaging characters. And that’s because The Iron Claw’s portrayal of the Von Erichs doesn’t past muster in the adjective game.
See, there’s this exercise they teach in screenwriting classes to help writers learn how to create fully fleshed-out characters, and the exercise is this: describe the character with a minimum of five adjectives that have nothing to do with their profession or physical appearance (it’s also good to use at least a few adjectives that contrast, because real people contain multitudes). The more adjectives you can come up with, the better-developed the character. So, for example, you might say that Rocky Balboa is dim-witted, kind-hearted, perseverant, loyal, and sentimental… or that Michael Corleone is smart, brave, dedicated, vindictive, and calculating… or that Hannibal Lecter is brilliant, wry, deliberate, sociopathic, and cruel. And you can do this with pretty much any well-drawn character in history, from Hamlet to Barbie.
Conversely, you can also use this exercise to show the deficiencies in the way a character has been written, as brilliantly illustrated in this video by Red Letter Media comparing the characters from the original Star Wars trilogy to the characters from that franchise’s prequel trilogy:
But the Von Erichs, as portrayed in The Iron Claw, don’t really hit many adjectives, and the adjectives they do hit are often all kind of samey.
Fritz (Holt McCallany) is demanding, manipulative, and narcissistic. He preaches such tenets of toxic masculinity as “men don’t cry.”
Doris (Maura Tierney) is conservative and religious. Like Fritz, emotion is not her thing (when one of the boys asks to have a serious talk with her, she tells him “That’s what your brothers are for”).
Kevin (Zac Efron, freakishly swole to a degree his real-life counterpart never was) is inarticulate, unassuming, loyal, and protective. He’s not introverted, exactly, but he doesn’t know how to flirt with women, let alone be the grandiose showman his profession demands.
David (Harris Dickson from Triangle of Sadness) is quick-witted and charismatic. He’s very good at doing the shit-talking promos that are so central to pro wrestling.
Kerry (The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White) is short-tempered and bacchanalian and… uh… I dunno… what do you call someone who rides a motorcycle? Overcompensatory?
Mike (Stanley Simons) is sensitive. He’d rather be a musician but Fritz won’t let him.
Kevin’s wife, Pam (Lily James, completely wasted), is also there.
So it’s not exactly a rogues’ gallery of compelling personalities. Half of these characters don’t even really have shortcomings. They’re just kinda flat. Other than Kevin, none of them are even given personal lives.
Worsening matters further is that, because the characters are all meant to be so repressed, the actors playing them give very stoic, blank performances. There’s just nothing to hold on to as we’re dragged from event to event to event.
If The Iron Claw wasn’t going to be a three-hour opus that allowed the family to really flourish as characters, it might have been better served being about a fictional family based on the Von Erichs or taking more dramatic liberties. The youngest brother, Chris, has already been completely omitted from the story to make it more manageable, but Durkin still can’t balance everyone the way he needs to. The Von Erichs may have been champions, but The Iron Claw isn’t even a contender.