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Sean Durkin’s first two features, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Nest,” have a manner that I’d describe as apologetic realism: there’s something he’s bursting to say, but he forces it into the confines of tightly crafted dramas. Those films have a tamped-down melancholy that hint at how much he’s holding in check. He doesn’t lay his voice on the line, but, by forcing his characters into frameworks with a too-clear point, he never seems to explore their lives fully, either. His third feature, “The Iron Claw” (which opens December 22nd), is different. In this group bio-pic of the Von Erich family of professional wrestlers, Durkin’s brand of realism is even more rigorous, yet unapologetic. He still has plenty to say, but this time his characters do more than fit his ideas—they inspire his imagination, largely because they themselves are creators of fantasy.
As presented by Durkin, the patriarch, Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), has a chip on his shoulder the size of a sequoia, and he matches it with colossal dreams of vengeful success that overwhelm everyone in his life. The story starts in the nineteen-sixties, when Fritz, a struggling wrestler, splurges on a Cadillac to foster an illusion of success, while imbuing his two young sons, Kevin and David, with a gospel of fanatical self-reliance that’s also an imperative to be the “toughest” and the “strongest.” The movie’s protagonist, and its occasional narrator, is the grownup Kevin (Zac Efron, imposingly muscled), the family’s oldest surviving son. Kevin’s older brother, Jack, Jr., died in an accident at the age of six. Jack’s death is one of the key reversals that shadows the family, leading to the pervasive, publicity-fuelled notion—one that the Von Erichs take grimly seriously—of a family curse. The heart of the drama begins in 1979, when Kevin is making a name for himself in the ring—namely, the Sportatorium, a small Dallas arena that Fritz owns and operates. “We loved wrestling,” Kevin reminisces in voice-over, and it shows, even as the rest of the movie depicts how that love was lost, along with many of the people he loved.
“The Iron Claw” is as exuberant as it is mournful, and the high spirits of performance and achievement are inseparable from the price that they exact. Kevin is disciplined, focussed, and grounded; he’s a vigorous and enthusiastic performer, leaping from the ropes, raging, slamming, punching, and putting on a show with the maneuver—the skull-squeezing Iron Claw—that made his father famous. But for Fritz it isn’t enough that Kevin is locally successful; Fritz, who believes that he was wrongly denied the sport’s heavyweight championship, lives for the day that one of his four sons—and, indeed, preferably all of them, in succession—will win that belt. (In real life, there were five at the time; Durkin cuts one, Chris, the youngest, out of the story.) But what does it mean for a pro wrestler to win? The movie makes the matter apparent, by way of a bit of dialogue that’s dropped into the movie sweetly and aptly—in the sequence in which Kevin connects with Pam (Lily James), a determined and self-aware young autograph seeker with an ulterior motive. The scene of their meeting is one of the most charmingly written and performed romantic encounters of the year in movies (up there with the elevator encounter in “Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game,” which started the year in romance), and the date that follows is similarly witty, wry, and tender.
Over a plate of ribs in a late-night diner, Kevin reveals to Pam his ambition to win the championship, and she wonders, “Ain’t it all just fake?” When he takes exception to the term, she clarifies, “Prearranged, written.” Kevin explains the championship as a “promotion” based on “ability and how the crowd responds to you,” and the professional drama that he faces, regarding the response he gets, is paralleled by another part of wrestling that’s in no way feigned or simulated: the pain, the physical toll that it takes. Kevin is something of the Moses of his family’s path to fame: he shows the way, but he lacks the eloquence, and his professional fate is sealed when he proves tongue-tied in front of a mike at a crucial moment. The wrestlers, as “The Iron Claw” shows, are more than just physical performers; they’re the creators of characters. Precisely because the fights themselves are scripted, rehearsed, and staged, the wrestlers must fill and sell their characters, as actors do, and must carry the performance over to pre- and post-match bravado and crowd-stoking displays of cockiness in publicity routines. It’s Kevin’s brother David (Harris Dickinson) who proves to be his family’s Aaron, the golden-tongued orator who sways the crowd. In the process, he sways Fritz, who, as the boss of the operation, decides the pecking order of his wrestling sons.
Yet Fritz’s pecking order is far more than merely professional. Because his very identity—as his family’s protector, the redeemer of its name and the breaker of its curse—is bound to the prospect of his sons’ successes in the ring, his professional favor is also a paternal popularity contest. At the breakfast table, Fritz unabashedly announces his ranking of his four living sons, adding that the ranking “can always change.” The young men, ranging from adulthood to adolescence, are competing, above all, for their father’s love. As for their mother, Doris (Maura Tierney), she is silently complicit in Fritz’s schemes, both loving him too much to stand in his way and subordinating her temperament to her vows in the name of her devout Christian faith. What’s more, the parents hold to a secular gospel of self-reliance, which means, as it does in the politics of the wider world, that you’re under the dictates of a rigid authority, but, when its demands prove untenable, you’re on your own.
In short, Fritz creates a spotlight too big for his sons to escape and too bright for them to endure, and tragedy ensues—and ensues and ensues—and Kevin, as the oldest living son and a paragon of responsibility, takes it very hard when he can’t prevent it. The story involves substance abuse, reckless behavior, self-harm, and coincidental disasters that nonetheless all issue, like dominoes lined up in a hidden design, from one fundamental decision: Fritz’s determination that his sons will wrestle and will strive for the big time. The movie is tumultuously busy, filled with athletic agitation and swinging exuberance, yet it’s also stripped down dramatically to a stark framework of variations and permutations on a muscular idea: the destructive power of paternal authority.
In this regard, “The Iron Claw” is of a piece with “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Nest,” which are also stories of illegitimate, cruel, deceptive, and destructive authority—male authority, symbolically or literally patriarchal. But neither of the earlier films features characters of sufficient dimension or complexity to give the confrontation energy. In “The Iron Claw,” the characters in Fritz’s grip have florid personalities, significant accomplishments, and expansively worldly temperaments that generate what the earlier films lack: loose ends, a sense of centrifugal existence that doesn’t merely seek to escape the clutches of a domineering man but already ranges beyond them and struggles against being pulled back in.
What’s more, neither of the earlier films has a sufficiently developed world of activity to put their intimate conflicts into the practical terms of ambition, personality, and knowledge. But Durkin is a longtime fan of wrestling, and, in “The Iron Claw,” it is evident: he approaches the subject with nuanced devotion and detailed observation that isn’t condescending or fawning. He sees the delights and the shams of pro wrestling, the sincere vitality of its performers and the insidious distortions of character that the relentless ballyhoo of self-promotion and self-fictionalization inflict on them, the corrupt machinations that go with the business side of things and the increased corruption that comes with the riches and the publicity of national and international media fame. Though Durkin doesn’t tether his protagonists to the political and social currents of the times, he at least takes the practicalities of the business seriously, with scenes of money and where it goes, of how the sport is managed, of the place of media and of, essentially, fake news in the creation of its stars and story lines. And, throughout, there’s the physical punishment that the performer-athletes take for their showmanship, the high price exacted by choreographic failures and reckless improvisations, and the mental torment that comes with agonized bodies.
The actors invest their roles with combustible physicality and impacted agony, with a sense of natural ebullience and dark-shadowed oppression. Jeremy Allen White is Kerry, who turns to the family business with a dutiful rage when his dreams of Olympic glory as a discus thrower are thwarted; Stanley Simons is Mike, an ambitious musician whose dreams prove most resistant to change; and Dickinson, as David, fuses the boyish charm of another David of the era, David Cassidy, with the unbearable burden of responsibility. Efron has long struck me (ever since the release, in 2009, of “Me and Orson Welles,”) as an actor to be reckoned with, but he has rarely collaborated with directors to match his level of inspiration; here, he dominates the film with a self-deprecating poise, a gyroscopic center to balance the character’s tightly channelled violence, and a calmly assured aura—projected in his knowing gaze—that fills the screen. The scenes in the ring feel intensely physical—the actors fling themselves into their roles with wild abandon to go with the choreographed and necessary precision. Their heartiness and exuberance make it all the more painful to note the fragile timidity with which the grown Von Erich sons respond “Yes, sir” to their father, suggesting a lifelong reign of domestic terror. Every time one of them says it, it’s like hearing another nail driven into the coffin of a person being buried alive.
McCallany’s Fritz is blustering and hectoring, but at his most terrifying when dominating his sons with mere hints and cheerfully casual games of intimate power. Kevin gets the last word, but it’s largely because he has the good fortune to find a soulmate who, for her part, has the discernment to recognize, even from afar, the stuff he’s made of. If Kevin’s words fail him at times, it’s because thought takes precedence over show; his inhibition is the modesty of a better angel. As the determined, sharp-witted, and bracingly candid Pam, Lily James—in a movie year of strong women sustaining powerful men behind the scenes—delivers an invigorating yet fine-grained, assertive yet inward performance, and Durkin’s direction of her scenes has an attentive poise to match. The wedding of Kevin and Pam has a deep-rooted joyfulness that plays like a fleeting vision of heaven on earth. ♦