The Iron Claw, about an American wrestling family in a vice grip of ambition, beautifully balances the sweep of its story arc with the small moments. A significant victory in the ring takes place beyond the screen. The love between the family members is in full view at a wedding, where there are big smiles and awkward dance moves.

Sam Durkin’s biographical drama has been premiered on Lionsgate Play. Durkin’s film is an immersive experience of the highs and lows of wrestling, thrilling in the ring and dramatic outside of it.

Durkin’s screenplay is loosely based on a real-life clan of wrestlers. Led by Jack (Holt McCallany), and comprising Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson) and Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), the Von Erichs rule the ring – but pay a heavy price too.

Jack pushes his sons hard to win the championship title that has eluded him. Kevin particularly strains every muscle to fulfil his father’s massive expectations and keep the money rolling in. The burden of expectation is felt by David and Kerry too, and threatens to torch the fourth son Mike (Stanley Simons), who would rather perform in a band.

Early scenes of achievement give way to the sombre cost of pursuing victory whatever the cost. Various sons fall by the wayside, seemingly fulfilling the belief that a curse hangs over the Von Erichs. There is little room for doubt when father knows best and mother refuses to interfere.

The actual Von Erichs had a sixth family member who isn’t included in the narrative for reasons that become apparent. Writer-director Sean Durkin has a great deal of ground to cover. Individual story-lines unfold between the late 1970s and the late 1990s. Kevin gets married to Pam (Lily James), while the sport itself undergoes changes that add to the brothers’ troubles.

The Iron Claw (2023).

The film’s title refers to the family’s signature move of simulating the scratching of an opponent’s face in the ring. The Iron Claw is set in the age of performative wrestling that paved the way for the histrionics of the World Wrestling Federation. Physical strength and skills matter as much as the ability to woo the crowds with gimmicky matches that Kevin coyly admits to being “pre-arranged”.

Durkin brings to his moving saga of sweat and sinew the same understanding of a dysfunctional family dynamic as he did in his feature debut Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). Despite so much going for it, the movie was passed over by the Oscars. Zac Efron’s career-best performance, superb framing by Son of Saul cinematographer Matyas Erdely, smooth editing that includes lengthy montage as well as judicious ellipses – none of these elements seem to have impressed the Oscar jurors.

Durkin observes the slow-building implosion with sensitivity rather than cruelty. The lovingly directed film is anchored by Efron’s terrific portrayal of a man who sometimes resembles an overgrown, bulked-up child. Desperate to live up to the Von Erich legacy, Efron’s Kevin is heroic as well as pathetic, a massive hunk of flesh with a heart that bleeds for what has been lost, and what is yet to come.

The Iron Claw (2024).