MOVIES

The Iron Claw Review: An Emotional Body Slam

Sean Durkin’s previous films have utilized the visual language of horror movies to tell their stories, even though there’s nothing within the texts themselves that resembles the genre. He has admitted being frustrated at critics calling his previous film, capitalist satire “The Nest,” a psychological thriller just because he shot the crumbling mansion in which it was set like it was haunted. This might be why the first half of “The Iron Claw” may feel out of character for those familiar with his work, but there’s still something characteristically unnerving beneath a period biopic full of training montages and classic rock needle drops, and it comes from the moments spent alone with Zac Efron’s protagonist.

Many actors bulk up for physically demanding roles like this, but Durkin is the rare filmmaker to shoot their muscular lead in a way that makes them appear alien, honing in on the outsized muscles and veins of a man still sleeping in what looks like a teenager’s bedroom — a frail boy who has made himself appear to be a commanding figure, entirely for his father’s approval. Durkin similarly lingers on moments of Kevin training alone in ways that he doesn’t with his other siblings — David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and Mike (Stanley Simons) — holding on Efron’s face as he runs or lifts weights, capturing a man who looks like he’s not doing this out of choice.

Kevin has an earnest love for his brothers, and the film is quick to offset any moments of jealousy with this reminder, which only adds a deeper sadness to Efron’s portrayal. Not only does he not feel comfortable being part of this world, but he’s only there because it means spending more time with his siblings. He’s oddly sheltered from everything else but wrestling — we learn later, after a date with his future wife, Pam (Lily James), that he’s still a virgin, another moment demonstrative of the social awkwardness beneath his intimidating stage persona. The actor avoids making Kevin into a man-child caricature, ensuring that the tenderness that makes him ill-suited for the profession that has come to define his life remains front and center.

The Von Erich curse is referenced by Kevin throughout the drama, but he’s the only one who earnestly buys into it. Even as the only sibling who survives, years of his life are spent believing that he must shy away from loved ones to not taint them with his DNA, going so far as to give his children different surnames. As a filmmaker whose previous work has made the deterioration of the family unit feel almost supernatural in his horror-inflected approach, Durkin similarly leans into the string of tragedies as something almost otherworldly, matter-of-factly accumulating in quick succession. Explanations are given for all, but when viewed through the protagonists’ eyes, any rational reason fades into the background, each death only heightening Kevin’s alienation. He’s a man who believes he was born cursed, living a life he had no say in establishing.

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