Producers: Tessa Ross, Juliette Howell, Sean Durkin, Angus Lamont, Derrin Schlesinger   Director: Sean Durkin Screenplay: Sean Durkin Cast: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Holt McCallany, Lily James, Stanley Simons, Aaron Dean Eisenberg, Maxwell Jacob Friedman, Brady Pierce, Kevin Anton, Cazzey Louis Cereghino, Chavo Guerrero Jr., Ryan Nemeth, Grady Wilson, Valentine Newcomer, Michael Harney and Scott Innes    Distributor: A24

Grade: B-

Most everything but the emotions—and the running-time—seems curiously small in Sean Durkin’s domestic soap opera about the so-called Von Erich Curse; even the wrestling ring that serves as the backdrop central to the family dynamic feels less than full-sized, perhaps in an attempt to make the trio of lead actors look more physically imposing when they’re in it.  (Though all are dramatically strong and have clearly bulked up for their roles, they’re hardly the actual size of the grappling brothers they’re portraying, and their foes have been cast accordingly.)

“The Iron Claw” is also odd in that as a narrative it feels both solemn and rushed, telling the story at a very deliberate pace but omitting much of the detail that could have given it greater heft.  One’s left with the nagging suspicion that it really cries out for mini-series treatment.

Still, with all its fundamental flaws, Durkin’s film remains pretty absorbing.

The title refers to a devastating submission hold that 1960s wrestling villain Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) employs—a grip to the face of opponents that inevitably sends them screaming to the mat.  But it also points to the unyielding control that he wields over his family, wife Doris (Maura Tierney) and sons Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) and Mike (Stanley Simons). 

The film begins in the sixties, when Fritz (his ring name—he was born Jack Adkisson) announces his ambition to his wife, not only to excel as a wrestler but to become a promoter as well.  It then shifts quickly to the 1970s, when he’s brought Kevin and David into his stable of wrestlers in Texas; he’ll later add Kerry after the boy’s hope for Olympic glory in the discus throw is dashed with Jimmy Carter’s withdrawal of the American team from competition in the 1980 games in Russia.  The siblings, all using their father’s signature hold, become superstars in the Dallas territory and elsewhere via television syndication.

But the family suffers tragedy after tragedy.  Fritz’s oldest son Jack Jr. had been killed in an accident when he was six, and now David dies while wrestling in Japan in 1984 at twenty-five; Fritz brings a reluctant Mike into the business to replace him, but he suffers an injury in the ring that leads to a life-threatening condition and his suicide in 1987 at age twenty-three.  Meanwhile Kerry is involved in a motorcycle accident that leads to the amputation of his right foot; he continues to wrestle but with a prosthesis, though he hides the fact from the world until, brought down by grief and legal problems, he too commits suicide in 1993 at thirty-three.  (This is not the end of the family’s losses: Chris, another of Fritz’s sons, killed himself in 1991 after a short, unsuccessful wrestling career; he was only twenty-one.  He is not mentioned in the film.)  Fritz himself died of cancer in 1997, having suffered the loss of four of his five boys.

Durkin shows no interest in depicting the horror of this series of deaths explicitly; they occur offscreen and are discreetly reported afterward, with elaborate funerals following.   Instead he structures his account of this series of tragedies around the reaction of the sole surviving von Erich son, Kevin, who’s portrayed by Efron as the de facto oldest brother but not necessarily his father’s favorite at any given moment.  (Fritz, we’re told, had a habit of ranking the boys on the basis of their abilities—in the ring and in terms of fan popularity; and Kevin’s relative shyness and inability to do proper trash talk for the camera hobbled him.)  A good deal of time is devoted to his romance with, and marriage to, Pam (Lily James), who introduces herself after a match and effectively asks for a date.  Becoming a father himself—the couple eventually have four children, two boys and two girls, all of whom he insists on being registered on birth certificates as Adkisson to avoid the possible effect of any curse—creates inevitable stress because of his sad responsibilities to his parents and brothers (and the family business); the emotional impact is shown in his manic use of the claw in a match against flamboyant reigning champ Ric Flair (Aaron Dean Eisenberg).  But he emerges as a survivor.

And Efron is quite stunning in the part, not just in terms of his bulked-up physique and his ring action (choreographed by wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr., himself a member of a famous wrestling clan, and supplemented by some stunt work) but in the performance’s emotional range.  Yes, at times he can get a bit treacly—this is, after all, basically a macho weepie in which, among other things, one recently deceased brother travels by boat to an afterlife where those who have predeceased him are waiting to greet him on the dock—but it’s still a wrenchingly affecting turn. 

There’s another great performance, however—by McCallany as the single-minded, literally iron-fisted patriarch so determined to realize his dream that he puts his sons in harm’s way to do so (his treatment of Mike, played by Simons as a gentle, sensitive soul who only wants to play music and is not a natural athlete like his brothers, is very like a case of child abuse).  One can imagine a different version of this story, in which he rather than Kevin would take center stage as a modern King Lear, oblivious to the damage he’s doing.  As it is, one gets a limited sense of that here, thanks to the bulldog strength McCallany brings to the role.  As his long-suffering spouse Tierney is also outstanding, though her screen time is more limited.

That’s not to neglect the excellence of Dickinson and especially White as David and Kerry.  Dickinson brings out the former’s brashness with vigor and White the latter’s descent into excess and despair with poignancy.  James expertly conveys Pam’s vivacity as Kevin’s girlfriend and her concern as his wife.  It’s the family members that dominate here, and apart from Eisenberg’s Flair, the other wrestlers are glimpsed only fleetingly and to little effect.

“The Iron Claw” isn’t a big-budget movie, and sometimes the limitations show; but the work of production designer James Price and costume designer Jennifer Starzyk achieve a good feel of place and time, and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély captures it with a sense of gritty realism, while Matthew Hannam’s editing emphasizes the emotional ups and downs effectively.  Richard Reed Perry’s score is nicely spare, not overstating the dramatic beats. 

There are documentaries about the von Erich family that offer greater detail, though obviously in flatter, less dramatic terms.  But Durkin has pared down the sad story and shaped it effectively, with obvious devotion.  The result is a sporadically moving, if sprawling account of a father’s obsessive determination to achieve his dream vicariously through his sons, with disastrous results.