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. 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 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.
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. The wrestlers, as “The Iron Claw” shows, are more than just physical performers; they’re the creators of characters. Because the fights themselves are scripted, rehearsed, and staged, the wrestlers 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.
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.