Sean Durkin directs “The Iron Claw” with a grounded realism appropriate for a story so tragic. The real-life tale of the Von Erich wrestling clan is so devastating, so brutal to endure, that any other approach could render it cartoonish or even offensive. Durkin films this family like a welcome guest invited into their most intimate moments, allowing us to witness their greatest triumphs and defeats, family dinners and casual dates, workout sessions and party-going. The cast, including but especially Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White, are so stripped-down, so understated, that these men feel less like movie characters and more like guys we happen to know. Which makes it all the more painful when they start to tragically die.
Efron’s Kevin blames the family curse, a notion that his wife and the mother of his children finds to be absolute hogwash. But he’s convinced. After all, why else are his brothers dying, one by one? He won’t even let his kids use the Von Erich name. He’s superstitious, and the bleak reality of the deaths surrounding him feed it.
But Durkin is nothing if not an empathetic filmmaker. Kevin’s obsession with the family curse isn’t treated as deranged — it’s how he grapples with the sheer amount of pain in his life, the only defense mechanism he has against inexplicable tragedy. And the film suggests there could be truth to this whole curse thing. Note how “The Iron Claw” temporarily resurrects a dead character and inserts them into the background of a key scene to witness a family triumph — to be present for his brother’s victory.
The characters in the movie don’t see it. But we, the audience, do. The characters can’t dismiss it as a hallucination because they weren’t aware of it. But we’re aware of it. The audience sees all. We cannot be deceived. That was a ghost.