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  • Writer's pictureGuilherme Cândido

Zac Efron shines in 'The Iron Claw', but is let down by an inconsistent script

In the distant 1980s, one family reigned supreme in wrestling, a time before WWE had come into existence. This was the Von Erich family, whose patriarch, Fritz (Holt McCallany, from Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), spent his entire career chasing a championship belt that, in reality, was never within reach. This frustration was passed down to the point of becoming a family obsession, which might justify old Fritz's rigor and intransigence towards his four sons. Kevin (Zac Efron, increasingly distant from High School Musical) is the oldest and, therefore, the father's favorite, although he occasionally hears that "the ranking can change at any moment," as if dedication were a metric to determine which offspring deserves more attention.

Assuming the role of an occasional narrator, Kevin is propelled to prominence right after the black and white sequence summarizing his father's glorious days in the ring. This is when we witness an impressive physical transformation on Efron's part, the kind that tends to catch the Academy voters' eyes, but not this year (it seems the image of the dancing high schooler still lingers over him). The young actor is virtually unrecognizable, like a mass of muscles about to burst.

However, the appearance is just one detail of the performance offered by Zac Efron, an actor who has been demonstrating evolution and commitment over the years, choosing progressively more challenging projects, and if you have any doubts, just watch him in The Greatest Showman (2017) and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019). He has the best opportunities in The Iron Claw, and, pardon the pun, he grabs them with both hands. After all, Kevin is the most sensitive and conscious member of the family, to the extent that he is the only one to complain about his father's aggressive methods to his mother, receiving a revealing response ("this is between you, if you need to talk, that's what your brothers are for"). The dramatic pauses, the pained look, and the limitation of movements, show an actor who is ready.

If Efron endorses Kevin as the film's best element, director and writer Sean Durkin takes the opportunity to conceive another story of a broken family, a kind of 'spiritual' sequel to his good work in The Nest (2020), when Jude Law played a family man who plunged his wife and children into a spiral of madness triggered by an economic crisis. In The Iron Claw, the psychological pressure comes solely from the traditional passing of the baton between parents and children, with the 'baton' also representing their insecurities and frustrations.

McCallany delivers his best role in years as Fritz, moving away from the supporting characters and villains he has been playing, but he encounters a problem with reduced screen time, a strange issue for a production that exceeds two hours and ten minutes of projection. This imbalance is felt in other areas of the script, like the swift escalation of Pam (Lily James, from Baby Driver and Darkest Hour), who goes from fan to wife in the blink of an eye. One-dimensional, her character initially seems to exist only to clear up any doubts of those not familiar with Wrestling (it doesn't even seem like it was written by the same author of Martha Marcy May Marlene), although the fine line between staging and reality, a classic mystery of that sport, remains blurred until the end. Indeed, the wrestling sequences are well-conducted and the sound design deserved more recognition this award season.

If the nuances of Wrestling sound confusing to the casual viewer, the drama of the Von Erich family is perfectly underscored by Sean Durkin, or even more than just 'underscored', I would say. The Canadian is even adept at laying the cards on the table, establishing motivations and consequences of the dynamics between the young wrestlers and their coach father, but when the family 'curse' comes into play, his script turns into a succession of tragedies that lets slip its penchant for sensationalism. When the promising Kerry (Jeremy Allen White, star of the series The Bear) finally reaps the fruits of no longer being an Olympic promise to dive headfirst into Wrestling, his next steps become predictable. At this point, White's limited expressiveness does not help him, especially in the character's key scenes, when the dramatic demand is not met.

On the other hand, just as Triangle of Sadness (2022) had hinted, young Harris Dickinson seems truly determined to move away from commercial narratives, approaching auteur cinema with courage and even aptitude. Yes, because that inexpressive and insecure guy who fumbled in the weak The Darkest Minds (2018) is now in the past. Charismatic, he offers a beautiful complement as a scene partner to Efron, with whom he shares chemistry and some of the production's best scenes.

In the end, the film is irremediably impacted by Durkin's questionable choices as a filmmaker, whether by failing to manage the story's pacing, or by overdoing it, delivering the third act to a melodrama that borders on the ridiculous in its final minutes, when it embraces cheesiness in a sequence that seems like it came out of a tasteless spiritual movie. A shame, because its cast deserved more.

NOTA 6,5


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