by Irvin Muchnick
Last month I commented sourly on the imminent release of the A24 film The Iron Claw, directed by Sean Durkin. The movie goes into general release on Friday. Today I attended a preview screening in San Francisco and arrived at a verdict that surprised me: This is a good piece of cinema – coherent in its portrayal of the human condition, and faithful in its attention to both detail and narrative structure.
Below are some quick items from my notepad. I want to emphasize two things up top. First, I’m not going to be playing “gotcha” with Durkin’s factual liberties; only hardcore pro wrestling fans even care about those things, and they are free to argue away about them in chat rooms. Second, mine is not a review per se. I leave that in the capable hands of my friend Jon Langmead, who attended the same Tuesday preview and will be publishing his take shortly at PopMatters, where he’s a regular contributor. (And Jon and I don’t agree on everything about The Iron Claw, most particularly Zac Efron. Jon wasn’t impressed with Efron; I think his performance has issues, but I also think it’s ticketed for an Oscar nomination.)
More importantly, I urge readers to engage Jon’s intriguing book Ballyhoo!: The Roughhousers, Con Artists, and Wild Men Who Invented Professional Wrestling, which will be published next month by University of Missouri Press. Capturing the essence of early 20th century wrestling – its untelegraphed transition from carnival tents to arenas – is the literary equivalent of eating soup with a fork. Somewhere in there, we all appreciate that amateur wrestling doesn’t sell as spectacle, and that storytelling required an unmistakable injection of fix, but beyond that we don’t know much. We don’t know the discrete timeline elements of this evolution. Jon Langmead does as good a job as anyone I know in breaking down these mechanics – telling us “how the weather was,” in Hemingway’s description of good writing.
OK, The Iron Claw.
My master observation is that the filmmakers avoided a trap door in the Von Erich legend. Though they allude repeatedly to the so-called “family curse,” they also convey events in a way that suggests that the term is more retrospective gloss than anything else. Pam, Kevin Von Erich’s wife, bats away the idea of a curse altogether when she avers that she doesn’t believe in curses, doesn’t believe in luck, and thinks people make their own luck. All told, Durkin is firmly sympathetic to Kevin, but without too much hocus-pocus (and no cloying evangelical Christianity whatsoever). In the director’s capable hands, I become more sympathetic, too.
Now for the random notes.
Fritz Von Erich
We don’t get any contradiction of the assertion that David Von Erich died of an intestinal disease during a Japanese tour (he died from an overdose of Placidyl, and other wrestlers hurriedly flushed pills of the sedative down the toilet of his Tokyo hotel room). We don’t get Fritz’s ferociously ill-tasted fake heart attack on television. We don’t get the addition of a phony Von Erich cousin. But Fritz is clearly the antagonist of the film, the Great Santini in a ten-gallon hat, not one of the protagonists, and that makes all the difference for the story’s credibility. In the end, survivor Kevin survives by rebelling against his overbearing dad. Holt McCallany is uncanny … chilling … in the accuracy with his mannerisms of the guy who was Jack Adkisson on his driver’s license.
Rest of the cast
Harris Dickinson, as David Von Erich, is superb. (How do all these British actors master perfect American regional accents?)
Jeremy Allen White, as Kerry Von Erich, is enigmatic. Kerry was the true natural superstar of the clan, the kid with the Conan the Barbarian body, which, for this movie, somehow got loaned out to Efron (more on this shortly). I suspect that White was awarded and executed this role just before his career star turn with the streaming hit The Bear.
Zac Efron, as Kevin, is the emotional prism and moral center of The Iron Claw – and in the tradition of Hollywood thespian parlor tricks, he pulls it off with a kind of negative capability. Efron’s Kevin is a jumble of trapped monosyllables and an inability to imagine a life outside the penumbra of his father and the peculiar wrestling life. Yet Efron imbues his character with gentleness and fundamental decency, and in the end — I believe we’re led to conclude — he’s the son who survives premature death for good reason: because he’s the son who finds something else to live for. It’s affecting and effective.
One thing for which I can’t forgive Efron is his absurdly cartoonish ripped body. Showing off in this way is star’s privilege, I suppose, and also part of the journey of “transformation” for a narcissistic and insecure actor in mid-career crisis. Kerry’s buffery was a little like that – but Kevin’s never was. No concentration of Method acting dedication can make a man in his mid-30s look like that all of a sudden. Chemical enhancement is required. In this instance, it was gratuitous. Simply not germane to the plot.
On a lighter note
The script name-checked my uncle, Sam Muchnick, the long-time president of the National Wrestling Alliance. This was actually ahistorical – Sam was retired by the time of Fritz’s NWA championship push for first David and then Kerry in 1983-84. I processed this as not so much an error as a conscious insider homage to Sam’s outsize role in wrestling politics in the pre-WWE territory era.
My 1988 Penthouse magazine article “Born-Again Bashing” covered the real-life events of The Iron Claw through the 1987 death of Mike Von Erich, and became Chapter 1 of my 2007 book WRESTLING BABYLON: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal, published by ECW Press.
My latest book is WITHOUT HELMETS OR SHOULDER PADS: The American Way of Death in Football Conditioning. ECW Press also published that book and my upcoming 2024 title UNDERWATER: The Greed-Soaked Tale of Sexual Abuse in USA Swimming and Around the Globe.