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The wrestlers cut a promo in The Iron Claw, starring Jeremy Allen White and Zac Efron Photo: Brian Roedel/A24

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The Iron Claw has Zac Efron doing Greek tragedy in spandex

A shredded Efron delivers one of the year’s sweetest, saddest performances

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Sean Durkin’s A24 drama The Iron Claw, based on the true story of a legendary family of pro wrestlers, revives a great American Christmas tradition: opening presents under the tree, eating a decadent meal, then driving the whole family to the local movie theater to watch a new prestige-season release that turns out to be the year’s most depressing film. PSA for those planning their holiday family viewing: The Iron Claw is not the overcoming-the-odds sports movie that the trailers would have you believe.

Set in Texas in the 1980s, The Iron Claw tells the infamous tale of the Von Erichs, who have one of the most upsetting Wikipedia entries you’ll ever read. Durkin, who wrote and directed, adapts their lives like a Greek tragedy in spandex, complete with a domineering patriarch and his sons, a clan of would-be champions with a death wish.

Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) is an up-and-coming pro wrestler with the looks for Playgirl magazine and the amateur acting chops of a two-by-four, which hold him back in a profession that’s rapidly moving from smoky beer halls to national TV. As the oldest living son in the Von Erich family, Kevin plays protector to his younger siblings: charming and theatrical David (Harris Dickinson), would-be Olympian Kerry (The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White), and the youngest, Mike (Stanley Simons), who would rather strum folk music than get bullied in the ring.

Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) is their father and the engineer of their tragedies. A former wrestler himself, Fritz hurls his boys into the ring one by one, in an effort to make them what he was never talented enough to be: the world champion.

The Von Erichs attend church in The Iron Claw Photo:  Brian Roedel/A24

McCallany gives a shrewd performance. He’s menacing, often verbally abusive, sometimes physically so. He’s also funny and affectionate, an enthusiastic mentor. Spending time with the Von Erichs isn’t like a horror movie where you scream, “Just get out of the house!” It makes emotional sense when the kids, now grown up, are still fighting over breakfast at the family kitchen table, or venting to their mother Doris, played by Maura Tierney with a chilling “don’t involve me in your dad’s shit” attitude. The kids sense, early on, that their pursuit of the championship belt will be their undoing, but they can’t disentangle from all the family camaraderie. They wouldn’t want to if they could. The Iron Claw pulls the same trick on the audience, which might be its best acrobatic maneuver.

The movie isn’t a full-box-of-Kleenex weepie from beginning to end. In the beginning, it’s a lot of fun. Because in a leap off the metaphorical top ropes of filmmaking, The Iron Claw also revives the other great American Christmas tradition: awkwardly watching a movie with your family and discovering it’s full of extremely beautiful people wearing minimal clothing, if any.

It’s understandably gauche these days to talk about actors’ bodies in cinema, but the topic is inescapable in a film about pro wrestling, an entertainment form where the top two selling points are blood and bare chests. Durkin gets it. Like a great pro-wrestling booker, he keeps his audience locked in until the final match, by tempting them with soapy melodrama, death-defying brawls, and plenty of greased beefcake.

Two of the Von Erich brothers raise their fists above the ring in The Iron Claw Photo: Brian Roedel/A24

The opening image gender-swaps Lost in Translation’s infamous butt shot — this time, we get Zac Efron in tighty-whities. It’s a tone-setter. Durkin consecrates all the men who cross the camera with gauzy lenses, soft lights, and enough oil to run a Buca di Beppo. Take for example Jeremy Allen White, whose sex appeal on The Bear sold countless plain white luxury tees. There’s no shirt to sell this time.

As these men climb the pro-wrestling ranks, Durkin gives them plenty of room to feel like charming brothers, sneaking out to parties and sharing tag-team matches on TV. Paired with all their roughhousing is a playlist of ’70s and ’80s rock anthems that keep the movie teetering right on the edge of period-piece parody, including a scene where a teenage Mike discovers the transcendent power of music by hearing Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.”

It would be easy for the “just guys being dudes” energy to topple into movie-of-the-week territory, but Durkin has partnered with brilliant artists who understand how to walk the high wire he’s strung his film on. That includes his leading man. With awards like the Golden Globes already looking foolish in overlooking The Iron Claw’s performances, I’d be remiss not to briefly spotlight the true champion of this ring: Efron is conjuring magic here, taking a character with few things to say and the vocabulary of a children’s book, and instilling him with the comforting glow of a night light.

bride Pam Adkisson (Lily James) and groom Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron), both dressed in white, dance at their wedding in The Iron Claw Photo: Brian Roedel/A24

There are really two love stories in this film, and Efron carries both: the love between Kevin and his brothers, and the romance between Kevin and Pam (Lily James). The latter doesn’t have much time to flourish on screen, and yet one diner conversation between James and Efron has more spark than most contemporary love stories. You get why the hell a woman would marry into a family of living, breathing red flags.

The aesthetic credit must be shared as well. The film’s cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, is best known for Son of Saul, a “you’ll only need to watch it once” drama about a prisoner in Auschwitz forced to scavenge and clean the gas chambers. In that film, Erdély keeps the camera close, as if he’s shooting a portrait. The faces of the living are in focus, and the surroundings are blurred, as though everything else is too disturbing to process. Erdély and Durkin apply a similar approach for The Iron Claw. Kevin’s family is his entire world, and everything else is scenery. Wrestling matches are framed like neoclassical paintings, the sculpted performers’ bodies standing in powerful silhouette, with the crowds vanishing into pitch-black shadow.

Anyone who knows wrestling history (or prestige biopics) will know where all this is going. Erdély’s lush nature photography shifts into more pensive shots of sunburnt Texas fields and close-ups of bruised bodies, until the midpoint, when the movie folds in half, with joy on the front side and a gauntlet of injuries and death on the back.

Harris Dickinson prepares to deliver a finishing move in The Iron Claw Photo: Brian Roedel/A24

Not included on the film’s lengthy list of real-life tragedies: Chris Von Erich, the youngest brother of the real-life Von Erich family. Asthmatic and prone to injury, Chris struggled to enter the pro-wrestling circuit before taking his own life in 1991. He was 21. His lack of inclusion in The Iron Claw doesn’t feel like erasure so much as an act of mercy for the audience — and perhaps the family.

Side B of The Iron Claw plays like a greatest-hits rundown of biopic tragedies, including negligent parents, dissolving marriages, drug abuse, mutilating accidents, and young life cut short. Yet time and again, Durkin and his collaborators decide to soften what became of the Von Erich brothers and their families, removing spouses and children and the horror that befell them.

The biopicification of such a horrendous, personal series of tragedies will sound crass to some. But Durkin doesn’t dilute the Von Erich story into direct-to-cable fluff. He’s performing a balancing act, aware that a sad story is only useful if people have the desire (and fortitude) to stay until the credits.

So it’s fitting that Durkin embraces the methods that pro wrestling at large and the Von Erichs in particular used to blend the profound and the profane. One moment, we’re watching shredded Ric Flair cut a high-octane promo. The next, we’re at a funeral. This emotional whiplash is true to the experience of loving pro wrestling, both back in the 1980s and, sadly, still today. Pro wrestling can be full of lovable, iconic celebrities like The Rock, John Cena, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. And it can also birth unbearable tragedies, like the fates of Chris Benoit, Owen Hart, and the Von Erichs too.

The Von Erich family hugs at the center of the ring in The Iron Claw Photo: Brian Roedel/A24

In The Iron Claw, the gap between the living and the dead doesn’t seem so far. And the gulf between the tearful and the joyful is smaller still. Through Durkin’s eyes, longtime fans and newcomers alike can see the paradoxical reality of pro wrestling — an entertainment that is both theater and sport, fake and real, and too often safer in the ring than outside of it.

The Iron Claw debuts in theaters on Dec. 22.