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As most of the legendary Von Erich brothers, Harris Dickinson (center), Zac Efron (right), and Jeremy Allen White brilliantly convey the humanity at the center of is often described as a “curse.” Courtesy A24 Films

They’re an essential part of moviegoing and pop music. We call them heartthrobs, those softly beautiful, feminine-looking young guys whom teenage girls (and the occasional boy) conceive their first crushes on. They’re easy to make fun of and shrug off, but you do so at your own peril. After all, people made fun of the Beatles once.

Zac Efron was one of those in the middle of the 2000s, when he starred in the High School Musical movies. So he carved out an enviable career as a secondary funny man in Neighbors, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, and even the Baywatch movie without people really taking him seriously. Of course, he did try to play a damaged ex-soldier in Charlie St. Cloud, and he wasn’t ready for a role like that. Now, though, he plays a North Texas pro wrestler dealing with unimaginable amounts of family tragedy in The Iron Claw, and now he’s ready for it.

He plays Kevin Von Erich, the oldest surviving son of Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), a villain in the Dallas-Fort Worth wrestling circuit. At his home in Denton, Fritz is determined that his sons become the champions that he never had the chance to be, so he pushes them relentlessly to not only develop their moves but also master the political and PR skills so audiences will embrace them. It works, but it takes an unthinkable toll during the 1980s, as Kevin’s brother David (Harris Dickinson) dies from a ruptured intestine while preparing for his title bout, Mike (Stanley Simons) suffers permanent brain damage during routine shoulder surgery, and Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) loses a leg in a motorcycle accident shortly after bringing the title belt home.

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You’ve heard about the “Curse of the Von Erichs” if you’ve lived in North Texas long enough. (Indeed, this publication has covered it in the past.) The real story was even more crushing, as the family had five sons survive into adulthood and saw four of them die. The movie removes Chris Von Erich and gives his story to the other brothers for the sake of streamlining the drama, and it almost becomes too much anyway.

Helping keep the film from becoming some endless slog of death is the visual precision that writer-director Sean Durkin brings to the project. He previously did Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Nest, and he knows how to concentrate the heartbreak in spots. He pulls off a great shot when Kevin learns of Mike’s suicide and responds by going to the gym. As Kevin hurls himself against the ropes of the ring, the camera focuses on one single rope as it vibrates madly under the strain. Then, too, there’s the scene when Kevin administers an actual beating to Ric Flair (Aaron Dean Eisenberg) during a match after the Nature Boy trash-talks the Von Erich family, including the dead members. Flair’s good-natured reaction to the beating is not only funny but instructive, as a family who thinks wrestling is everything comes up against a guy to whom it clearly means nothing. Flair just wants to know, “Where do I go to get fucked up” in Dallas?

The performances do even more work to keep this movie afloat. As the father Fritz, McCallany is a square-jawed, broad-shouldered actor who has turned up as tough guys in many an action thriller (Nightmare Alley, Wrath of Man, Sully), and he injects layers of sympathy to the role of a father who teaches his sons to be manly at all costs, never quite registering that there are situations in life where physical and mental toughness count for nothing. As brother David, Dickinson, too, shows yet more of his range. Just this year, this awfully pretty New York actor has played a Banksy-like outsider artist on TV’s A Murder at the End of the World and a working-class London single father in Scrapper, and you’d never guess from those performances that it’s him playing the most naturally talented member of this Texan wrestling family, too.

Still, your eyes go to Efron, who goes numb as loss upon loss weighs on him. Kevin becomes afraid to be near his wife (Lily James) and kids because he doesn’t want the family curse to hit them. He is in wrenching form, too, in a late scene when he sees his young sons playing together on the family ranch and breaks down because all of his own brothers are gone. The Iron Claw will seize the heart of anyone who’s seen a brother go through a bad time, and its power lies in the way it captures those bonds that go on even after death.

 

The Iron Claw
Starring Zac Efron. Written and directed by Sean Durkin. Rated R.

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