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The Iron Claw review - pancakes and beefcakes | reviews, news & interviews

The Iron Claw review - pancakes and beefcakes

The Iron Claw review - pancakes and beefcakes

A wrestling saga that keeps things too tight to the chest

Trouble will find us: the brothers in arms of the Von Erich family in Sean Durkin’s ‘The Iron Claw’

The Iron Claw is the sort of solid, mid-market Hollywood “programmer” that is often said to no longer exist on the big screen, and this family saga set in the world of Texas wrestling certainly has the feel of a museum piece. Many have warmed to it, perhaps for that nostalgic reason. 

American sports movies tend to do poorly in overseas markets, so it’s a little surprising that this one has the prominent involvement of BBC Film. It tells the true-ish story of Fritz and Doris Von Erich and four of their sons, who entertained the public with their tight-trunked slaprobatics in the 1970s and 1980s. The many fight sequences capture well the oddly joyous and rhythmic grapplings in the ring, but the film struggles to dig into the mixed-up masculinity of a family descending into tragedy.

In 2011, writer-director Sean Durkin gave another account of smothered trauma in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a study of a young woman in flight, and the strategy there of holding things back generated a slow power. Here, at the start, there’s a standoffish, anthropological gaze into a super-white world of guns and God, hogs and pancakes, pick-up trucks and redneck rock.

It’s rather like the non-judgmental first half-hour of The Deer Hunter where we’re seeing everyone’s all-American values on their own terms. You appreciate the lack of irony while waiting for some nuance to appear, but in this case a rather superficial family memoir is pretty much all we get through to the end.

The beefcake brothers seem fairly scrubbed and stable until several abruptly start succumbing to self-harm. The camera lingers on the uncomprehending looks of the eldest, Kevin (Zac Efron), so pumped-up and stiff-necked he looks alarmingly like a kind of secular Incredible Hulk. It’s a studied turn by Efron, but like so much else it fails to evolve. The film feels hamstrung, perhaps, by reverence towards the actual family. (You often have to be wary of films that end with photos or videos of the real-life people.)

Scenes of pill-popping are the closest we get to an understanding of why the brothers’ health and equilibrium fall off a cliff, other than talk of a Von Erich “family curse”. A better explanation might be the somewhat overbearing dad (Holt McCallany) and vaguely depressive mom (Maura Tierney). Yet the script doesn’t do family therapy any more than the family itself would.

McCallany is less an oppressive patriarch than a plot bulletin board and hall-of-fame curator, telling his offspring that “our greatness will be measured by our response to adversity”. Tierney is pushed to the side of her own life as much as the fine actor is pushed to the side of the underwritten screenplay.

Where the truculent boxing family in David O. Russell’s The Fighter (2010) were mouthy and neurotic Boston-area types, here a Southern reserve keeps everything as tightly laced as a wrestling boot. Even the mumbling Rocky films had more bounce and candour. Tears flow eventually in The Iron Claw, aided by a trip to the afterlife that adds the mawkish flavouring of a faith film and tries to soften the blows of cascading sibling catastrophes worthy of the Brontë sisters. Rarely has a film about death felt so wholesome. Then again, the story of the Brontë family as wrestlers – now there’s a sketch for Saturday Night Live.

The script doesn’t do family therapy any more than the family itself would


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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