Early in “The Iron Claw,” a harrowing, fact-based drama inspired by the Von Erich family wrestling dynasty’s saga of triumph and tragedy, writer-director Sean Durkin uses B-movie bombast to telegraph the sorrows yet to come. Although much of this Texas-set tear-jerker unfolds against a backdrop of rivers and ranches, bathed in golden-hour light, the prologue — focused on domineering patriarch Fritz Von Erich’s career in the ring and his unhinged ambition — portrays pro wrestling’s colorful sensibility via black-and-white visuals and an unnerving score.
That throwback aesthetic, more attuned to a ’70s horror flick than a rousing sports drama, fits the bill for a film that follows every victory with a drop kick to the gut. But those familiar with the true story — or with Durkin’s unsettling oeuvre, including “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Nest” — should expect as much. Once “The Iron Claw” populates its first half with peppy needle drops, sweaty training montages and brotherly bonding, the pivot toward death and heartache becomes all the more wrenching.
The film catches up with the Von Erich clan in 1979: Fritz (Holt McCallany) — a former “heel,” or bad-guy character, famous for the face-crunching finishing move that lends the film its title — has retired from the ring and is now grooming his four sons to chase the National Wrestling Alliance championship he never won. Preaching strength and self-sufficiency, Fritz ranks his offspring from favorite to least favorite, in a tongue-in-cheek practice that’s more biting than it appears. (In reality, there were six brothers: One died as a child, in an event the movie addresses but doesn’t depict, and another is written out of this story.) When the father asserts he never wanted any of his kids to go into wrestling, all while steering them toward that outcome, the gaslighting is blinding.
Although eldest Kevin (Zac Efron) is Fritz’s heir apparent, this golden child tends to settle for second place behind his siblings. His brother and tag-team partner, David (Harris Dickinson), gets a leg up by showing brasher bravado at the mic. When discus thrower Kerry (an underused Jeremy Allen White) returns home from Olympic training, his dream dashed by the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow, another sibling throws his hat in the ring. Even the baby brother, Mike (Stanley Simons), a budding musician with a sensitive soul, gets roped into the family business.
The movie’s title also alludes to the paralyzing grip that wrestling (or Fritz himself) had on this doomed family. As the brothers climb their way toward the world championship, in hopes that one of them can wow the scripted sport’s promoters and lift the belt, Durkin paints a gloriously grimy portrait of the wresting world — offering insight into what’s written, what’s not and how a staged match can still carry astronomical stakes. When the Von Erich brothers reach the height of their powers, throwaway shots of pills and syringes lend a foreboding poignancy to the proceedings. The matches themselves — particularly Kevin’s bruising bout with world champion Ric Flair (Aaron Dean Eisenberg) — leave no doubt about the profession’s brutality.
Ever the chronicler of psychological torment, Durkin dwells on Kevin’s perspective as cascading episodes of drug abuse, physical decline and mental anguish affect those closest to him. Having graduated from hunky to hulking — the camera lingering on every vein in his bulging biceps — Efron delivers a career-best performance that stretches well beyond the effective physical transformation. Initially, Kevin is earnest and amusingly obtuse while botching take after take of a pre-fight promo and fumbling through a date with his soon-to-be wife (Lily James, charmingly plucky). But when the purported Von Erich family curse rears its head — leaving the distant matriarch Doris (Maura Tierney) to repeatedly, heartbreakingly don the same funeral attire — Kevin can only unravel.
It’s unfortunate that Durkin isn’t more interested in the women in this tale, who are largely relegated to the sidelines. The filmmaker instead narrows his focus to Fritz and Kevin, whose relationship is poisoned by toxic masculinity and irrational resentments. Playing Fritz as assertive but amiable, McCallany is convincing as a father too self-obsessed to comprehend the devastation of his actions.
To pin down “The Iron Claw’s” message, one need only look at Efron’s Kevin, and recognize the human capacity for enduring the unfathomable. As the slightly too-tidy coda hammers home, such perseverance is all about rising up, putting one foot in front of the other and cherishing what remains. Therein lies one of wrestling’s main appeals: Just when you think your favorite fighter is down for the count, he finds a way to get back on his feet.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, profanity and drug use. 132 minutes.