It doesn’t take long into “The Iron Claw,” a tragicomic melodrama about an American wrestling dynasty, to know that the wildest scenes aren’t going to happen in the ring. They’re going to take place in the family circle, which is evident when the paterfamilias starts listing the order of his favorite sons while they’re chowing down at the breakfast table. It’s weird, though nobody looks as surprised as you feel. Then the writer-director Sean Durkin twists the knife a wee bit more: “The rankings,” the father says brightly, “can always change.”
Pitched between comedy and an inchoate creepiness (what’s going on here, you think), the scene exemplifies the edgy, off-kilter tone that Durkin establishes early in “The Iron Claw,” a smooth, spooky, often moving fictionalized account of a family of Texas professional wrestlers. Starting in the 1970s, the sons followed the father, Jack Barton Adkisson, a.k.a. Fritz Von Erich, into the slam-bam business. With their spectacular hair, musculature and moves — their flying drop kicks, twisting arm locks and discus punches — the sons became local sensations. TV syndication amped their fame, but by the 1990s the family had been gutted by tragedy.
The story charts the family’s rise in pro wrestling, picking up in 1963 when Jack (a volcanic Holt McCallany) was performing as a German villain. As Fritz Von Erich, Jack liked to strut into the ring with an Iron Cross on his uniform and finish with his signature move, the Iron Claw, a vice grip that he applied to an opponent’s head, at times drawing blood. It was a suitably grim, showy bequest that Jack passed, along with the Von Erich brand, onto his sons, who also drew blood, if not always in the ring. (The movie references one son who died in a childhood accident, but also omits crucial facts about the Von Erichs, including a sixth son.)
The way into “The Iron Claw” is the emotionally opaque Kevin (Zac Efron, so pumped he looks like he’ll burst), his father’s second favorite who clearly wants top ranking. Kevin serves as the story’s through line, its narrator and, in the final stretch, its unconvincing agent of change. “Ever since I was a child,” he says after the film opens, “people said my family was cursed.” The family never talked about it; then again, this taciturn bunch doesn’t do much sharing, which presents some problems for Durkin. The mother, Doris (Maura Tierney in a thin role), “tried to protect us with God,” Kevin adds, while his father tried to do the same with wrestling.
Kevin repeats this riff about the curse and his father much later after a series of triumphs and losses. In between, Durkin sketches in the family portrait with visual flair, some razor-sharp lines and telegraphing production design: A crucifix, a display case of guns and multiple trophies adorn the house. He gestures at larger themes — masculinity, American enterprise and exploitation — and more persuasively details the brothers’ relationships with one another, the warmth and sweet intimacy. Three sons live at home when the story gets cooking. There, Kevin sleeps in a room he shares with Dad’s third fave, David (a touching Harris Dickinson). It looks like they’ve slept there since boyhood; it feels like they’ll never leave.
“The Iron Claw” energetically, often engagingly, shifts in and out of the ring. It opens with a flourish of thundering music as Fritz’s glowering ring face is superimposed over a long shot of an empty arena, a fantastic jolt of expressionism that announces his looming role. It increases momentum after another son, the favorite Kerry (Jeremy Allen White, a blast of charisma), moves home. On Dad’s command, Kerry joins David and Kevin in the ring, and together they become major draws. Screaming fans follow, as do mounting pressures. Though the youngest son, Mike (Stanley Simons), wants to make music, he too is pulled into the ring. Like all the sons, he has the eerily submissive mien of someone long accustomed to pleasing his abuser.
As the story continues, and it becomes a sadly familiar tale of ambition, struggle and defeat, Durkin starts to falter. Among other things, “The Iron Claw” is about an abusive father, a subject that he doesn’t engage with great conviction. As Jack-Fritz pushes and pushes his sons, the horror of the family’s dynamics rightly edges out the comedy. The sons love their dad (and Durkin adores his characters), but that love is complicated, and should be more so — contradictory, disastrous, all-consuming. Efron is never more convincing than when Kevin flies off the ropes, his outstretched body an emblem of his yearning. Outside the ring, though, this sad, lost man curls into an existential fog that Efron and Durkin never satisfyingly pierce.
Durkin is most at ease when the stakes aren’t too heavy and the Von Erichs are soaring high, and in the earlier scenes he navigates the characters’ verbal stoicism just fine. There’s pleasure and meaning in the sons’ roughhousing and camaraderie, as well as beauty, heat and melancholy in their heartbreakingly fleeting physical perfection. Yet as the story’s uglier side emerges, Durkin hedges. The iron claw of corrosive patriarchy, as it were, and of emotional repression and misplaced ambition proves more than he wants to grapple with. Instead, as the story grows more and more despairing and painful, he attenuates its traumas partly by focusing too narrowly on one man’s transformation from true believer to heroic skeptic. “The Iron Claw” yearns for a happy ending, even after its monster devours its world.
The Iron Claw
Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. In theaters.