The Iron Claw (Christian Movie Review)
About The Movie
Professional wrestling is often derided as being “fake.” Yet according to wrestler Kevin Von Erich (Zach Efron), there’s nothing fake about what happens in the ring. That assertion is debatable, but the many hardships that plagued the legendary Von Erich wrestling family were certainly real. Based on true events, The Iron Claw clearly aims to enter the conversation come awards season. The movie may not reach those lofty heights, but it is a well-crafted and well-acted drama. Bolstered by a strong cast, The Iron Claw is a raw and somber drama that explores grief, faith, and the emptiness of worldly pursuits.
The Iron Claw is not a sports movie in a traditional sense. Unlike Rocky or Creed in which viewers cheer an underdog on to victory in high adrenaline matches, The Iron Claw is a raw, melancholic drama with wrestling as the backdrop. The wrestling scenes are short and infrequent, as the film focuses less on the family’s victories inside the ring than on the hardships they experience outside of it. And there are certainly enough hardships to fill a 2+ hour runtime.
Spoken of as the “Von Erich curse,” the close-knit family is derailed by a series of untimely deaths, suicides, drug use, and escalating misery. In fact, the tragedies are so plentiful that one of the real life Van Erich brothers (Chris, the youngest, who committed suicide by gunshot) is left out of the movie entirely, because the director wanted to keep the story from feeling too repetitive. As might be expected given the source material, The Iron Claw is a heavy film—the type that is shooting more for awards recognition than for mere entertainment value.
The real Kevin Von Erich is a professing Christian. A faith-based movie version of this story likely would have softened the unrelenting tragedies to elevate the inspiring power of faith. But The Iron Claw was produced by A24, a studio with a well-earned reputation for serious and gritty dramas. As a result, the Von Erich family takes a no-holds-barred pummeling throughout the film, with only occasional hints of hopefulness piercing the suffocating darkness. Christian faith plays a role, although it is mostly left in the background. The Iron Claw is not a film about faith as much as it is about the need for faith and the destructive futility of temporal pursuits (see “themes” section below).
Actor Zac Efron has come a long way since his days as a teenage heartthrob in High School Musical. He now has a staggering physical presence and the acting chops to communicate the turmoil raging within soft-spoken Kevin. In fact, the entire cast is excellent. The loving dynamic between the Von Erich brothers is the beating heart of the film, and the romantic relationship between Kevin and Pam (Lily James) is nuanced and authentic. Holt McCallany is also effective as the family’s domineering patriarch, even if his character is fairly one-note (likely by design).
At times, the movie feels repetitive, seeming to jump from one unhappy event to the next. This pacing was perhaps a conscious choice, unfolding a continuous torrent of misery that wears audiences down and helps them feel the Von Erich family’s pain. Sports movies are known as a “crowd-pleasing” genre, but The Iron Claw doesn’t aim to entertain. Is it compelling? Yes. But it’s not a film I’d want to revisit. Even so, much like Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon earlier this year, there is value in stories that perturb rather than comfort.
Some of the heavy R-rated content (see below) and the faith elements being relegated to the periphery of the story may keep some Christian audiences away. I don’t think it’s a must-see film. But for audiences who choose to endure the hard-to-watch affliction of the “Von Erich curse,” it offers a potent message about the futility of facing life in our own strength and our desperate need for God.
Engage The Film
Faith vs. Human Strength
A voiceover from Kevin at the beginning of the movie sets the stage for the film’s thematic tension: “Ever since I was a child, people said my family was cursed. Mom tried to protect us with God. Pop tried to protect us with wrestling. He said if we were the toughest, the strongest, nothing could ever hurt us. I believed him. We all did.” In a way, the parents represent two diverging paths for how the Von Erich brothers should respond to the pain and tragedy they experience. As the mother turns to prayer, the father exhorts the importance of relying on “no one but ourselves.”
As the opening voiceover establishes, it is the father’s “survival of the fittest” mentality that wins out, much to the detriment of the family. The “iron claw” in the title refers to the famous wrestling move the family developed, but it can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the suffocating grip the domineering patriarch has on the Von Erich brothers. The characters speak of the family “curse” as the influence of some ambiguous, vindictive external force, but it becomes apparent that many of the hardships that befall the family are of human origin.
At the start of the film, the father recklessly spends above their family’s financial means to rent a fancy car. He continually strives to present an impressive outward appearance to the world, even as his family begins to unravel. The Iron Claw exposes the emptiness beneath the surface of this well-orchestrated public appearance. In a stark visual, one of the brothers sits alone in a dark kitchen with a beer in hand and the championship belt laying on the table before him. Even while asserting that he simply “can’t come down” from the heights of the experience, it is clear how unsatisfied he is.
Despite their imposing physical appearance, the brothers are unable to cope in the world on their own strength. The Bible states, “All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Beneath the flashy surface, the best the world can offer is hollow and provides no healing or satisfaction.
Near the beginning of the movie, there is a shot of a crucifix hanging on the wall. A similar image is shown near the end of the film. The bookended visuals are a subtle way of representing Kevin’s spiritual journey. Having lost so much and failed to protect himself and his family in his own strength, Kevin appears to turn to God once again. The repeated crucifix visuals suggests that even though he drifted from his faith, God has not abandoned him. There is a touching scene during a pivotal moment in the film (and in Kevin’s emotional and spiritual journey) that points toward a future eschatological hope. Whether this heavenly vision is intended to be taken literally or merely as a reflection of Kevin’s psyche, it’s a potent reminder that for all the suffering in the world, one day there will be an end to all tears, pain, and sorrow (Revelation 21:4).