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By Sam Tucker

When I was in high school, I was encouraged by my football coach to give the wrestling team a try. Based on my size and backyard attempts with my brother, I thought it would be an easy transition… however, I ended up dropping out after a week because I was nowhere near tough enough to do it at that time. I did participate long enough to get the poster for the season, which promised that this was REAL wrestling with no Bimbos, no Bells, and no BS (or something along those lines). That always stuck with me as professional wrestling (specifically the WWF and WCW) took off as I went into High School – I could never see past the pageantry to embrace the storylines and athleticism that was on show.

The Iron Claw takes that idea and shows you the real pain, emotions, and toll that wrestling takes on a person from frame one. The title fades in slowly over a black and white close up of Holt McCallany strangling someone on the ropes in slow motion. This lets you really take in the muscles at work here, the sweat dripping, and the raw effort that is put in for this spectacle. It also perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the movie, readying you for an emotional body slam of your own (I couldn’t resist!).

Writer/Director Sean Durkin (best known for the excellent psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene) brings his love for the sport and obvious deep knowledge to the story of the Von Erich brothers, who were extremely popular wrestlers in the early 1980’s before the broad commercialization of the sport. Led by their commandeering but loving father (aforementioned career best Holt McCallany), we follow their rise into the public spotlight and the strain it puts on their personal lives. We see the real pain (physical and emotional) they are put through, and how this tension affects every part of their life.

There are two pivotal scenes that show you where the movie will take you very early on. The first is the breakfast scene that is in the trailer – their father gives them a matter of fact ranking of which son is his favorite in the same way I would organize Magic cards in a new deck. It captures the essence of a classic family breakfast, featuring generous heaps of eggs and bacon, alongside two deliberately blurred refrigerators—distinct in make, model, and color. Yet, it exudes the calculated efficiency reminiscent of Wall Street executives deliberating on stock decisions.

The second is during one of the many INCREDIBLY filmed wrestling match scenes, where the eldest(ish) son Kevin (unrecognizable in physique and performance Zach Efron) gets SLAMMED onto the concrete floor outside of the ring and is appropriately dazed. It is played so straight with no voice-over or other clues to guide you on how he’s feeling – is he playing along with the performance in the moment or is he genuinely hurt? It’s a fantastic subversion of the duality of the sport, the drama unfolding with the hurt (either performed or real).

And that’s the true beauty of the movie. It shows that even if the sport is dramatized and orchestrated behind the scenes, it really does push the boundaries and limits of what can be withstood by those who perform it. And for those out there who have no interest in wrestling history or watching the sport itself, there is still so much here to enjoy and be moved by.

So as always, head over to the IPH, turn your phone off, and enjoy a nice beverage while your appreciation grows for these very real performers.

Sam Tucker, a cinema enthusiast residing in Charlotte, fills his days playing rugby while discussing movies and a host of other nerdy pursuits. Follow what he’s watching on his Letterboxd here.
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