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The Iron Claw

Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron): [narrates] Ever since I was a child, people said my family was cursed. Mom tried to protect us with God. Dad 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.


The real star of The Iron Claw is the father of four wrestling boys, Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), whose bullying, demanding, uncompromising fathering produces champion wrestlers and suicidal sons in equal measure. To see the transformation of Zac Efron as Kevin into a muscle-bound competitor is to see an actor just as comfortable as Christian Bale and Robert De Niro in their malleable acting ages.

Narrator Kevin reminds us of his devotion to his dad and his brothers as immutable, resulting in tragic outcomes that seemingly were caused by the smothering nature of nurture. When asked by the aggressive fangirl Pam (Lily James) about what he wants in life, Kevin responds, “to be with my brothers.” The jury’s guilty verdict of involuntary manslaughter for Jennifer Crumbley in the case of her son’s murders at Michigan’s Oxford High School is a confirmation of the horrendous effects of abusive parenting that doesn’t have to be physical.

Although the docudrama concentrates on the psychologically abusive treatment of the boys, it also touches on the secondary role of women in their lives, especially the long-suffering but compliant mom, Doris ( Maura Tierney), who turns away Kevin’s plea for help when she tells him to work it out with his brothers!

While several scenes give a realistic view of in-the-ring action, the real action is outside, in the ring of family life, where the push to breed world champions produces suicides and mentally-abused young men who know not how to survive outside wrestling.

It’s the ‘80’s and many of our fathers chanted along with the audience, one, two, three, just as their fathers counted to ten in boxing. The toxic effects of body over mind are rarely as well depicted as in The Iron Claw.

Fake or real, disturbing or disabling, this story has ramifications for all families, in wrestling or pickle balling. The Iron claw is as good as it gets about the reality of wrestling.


John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM, Columbus, Ohio. Contact him at


John DeSando