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19 February 2024

In The Iron Claw, Zac Efron stands out

Efron is an underrated actor, and this is a star-making performance.

By Simran Hans

In a child’s twin bed, two hulking, muscled arms pull a patchwork quilt tighter. The arms belong to Zac Efron, who plays champion Kevin Von Erich in Sean Durkin’s new wrestling drama, The Iron Claw. The room’s peeling posters and little-boy bedspread are befitting of a teenager, but Efron’s startling physique – emphasised by a shrunken pair of tighty-whities – is most definitely a grown man’s.

The film is a loose biopic of the Von Erich family, a wrestling dynasty from Texas whose rise to fame began in the late 1970s. Holt McCallany plays patriarch Fritz, a retired wrestler who never brought home the National Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Champion title, and so sees to it that at least one of his sons will. But by 1993, there was only one of them left.

Fritz’s presence hovers threateningly over his four sons: the film opens with a shot of his enormous, looming face. “Ever since I was a child, people said my family was cursed,” says Kevin, the second-eldest, and as the story unfolds, it’s easy to see why. The film is an old-fashioned melodrama, with tragedy docked at every narrative turn. To ward off superstition, he and his brothers have endeavoured to be the toughest, the strongest, the absolute best, so nothing can ever hurt them – an insurance policy against psychic pain.

The shaggy-haired brothers tumble about the family kitchen, and later, the ring, like a pack of golden retrievers. Kerry (The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White ) is his father’s favourite, then Kev, then David (a magnetic Harris Dickinson), then Mike (newcomer Stanley Simons), as Fritz announces at the breakfast table. Each boy offers a variation on prettiness; there’s the sensitive, stoic Kevin, the brooding Kerry, a trainee olympian with a Roman nose; the lean and cheeky David, the de facto frontman of the clan; and baby-faced Mike, who would prefer to be playing the guitar. It’s a haunted kind of beauty, destined to crumple and bruise. But crying is forbidden.

The physical impact of wrestling and the brutality of Fritz’s toxic values are a one-two punch that the boys struggle to take. When Kevin pleads with his mother (Maura Tierney) to step in because “dad’s being too hard on Mike”, she tells him to turn to his brothers instead. Kevin ends up in the arms of local girl Pam (Lily James), an aspiring vet whose tenderness cushions his father’s blows.

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The other boys are not so fortunate. The pressure of the fighting, the touring, the TV appearances, and the constant one-upmanship makes David crack and turns Kerry bitter and rageful, while Mike grows numb. Those who are familiar with the Von Erich story will know that actually, there were six Von Erich brothers (the eldest, Jack, died as a child; another brother, Chris, who died by suicide in 1991, has been excised from the film). The fates of David, Kerry and Mike are similarly bleak.

But their happiest moments are the film’s most vivid: driving at golden hour, dancing together at a wedding, embracing in an awkward but memorable dream sequence. Devastation comes thick and fast, but Durkin prefers not not to wallow, letting it accumulate instead. Honing in on flickers of brightness makes the whole thing sadder. The film is a weepie in the traditional sense, squeezing the audience for tears.

Efron is an underrated actor, and this is a star-making performance. The former teen heartthrob is now 36, but for many the actor has remained frozen at 18, the age he was when he starred in Disney’s High School Musical. A sensitive jock with fluttery eyelashes, he catered to a swooning teen market in films such as Hairspray and 17 Again, before finding a niche as a self-aware “himbo” in comedies including Neighbors, Dirty Grandpa and a Baywatch film. He’s dabbled in weirder stuff (The Paperboy, which saw Nicole Kidman urinate on him, is a personal favourite), and he is often the best thing in a bad film (We Are Your Friends, The Greatest Showman). Still, he’s struggled to assert himself as an adult actor, stuck in man-child roles.

Kevin Von Erich is a kind of bridge, a little boy lost in a pumped-up, overgrown body. Efron buries a broken heart, ensuring a quiver of anxiety is just detectable beneath rigid shoulders and a clenched jaw. In the wrestling scenes, the actor’s training as a dancer shines. He has heft, but also grace. When the brothers dance together, Dickinson, Allen-White and Simons are charming, but goofy, or studied. Efron’s self-possession, even when he’s dulling his natural showmanship, can’t help but stand out.

“The Iron Claw” is in cinemas now

[See also: Jacob Collier’s internal weather]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation