Film reviews: Iron Claw | Your Fat Friend

In this biopic of a real-life family of professional wrestlers beset by tragedy, indie director Sean Durkin grapples with the consequences of living life according to a fake ideal, writes Alistair Harkness

The Iron Claw (15) ****

Your Fat Friend (15) ****

Having broken through back in 2011 with cult drama Martha Marcy May Marlene and belatedly followed it up a decade later with the Jude Law-starring financial drama The Nest, indie director Sean Durkin returns with his biggest film to date, The Iron Claw, a biopic of a real-life family of professional wrestlers so beset by tragedy its members believed they were cursed. Starring Zac Efron, Harris Dickinson and, in his first major film role, The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White, it’s a movie that takes the inherent silliness and studied fakery of pro-wrestling seriously, treating this scripted sport as an intensely physical form of theatre in which real life and fantasy can sometimes become tragically intertwined.

In this respect it resembles Darren Aronofsky’s similarly bleak The Wrestler, though unlike that film, the heady days of wrestling’s 1980s ascendency as nationally televised entertainment for the mindless masses aren’t presented as some rose-tinted idyll. Instead it’s the empty prize driving the Von Erich clan, or more precisely, Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), the family’s tyrannical patriarch. As the film has it, he’s an embittered former wrestler whose own failure to secure the world championship belt has led him to mould his variously talented sons – Hulk-like eldest brother Kevin (Efron), fast-talking David (Dickerson), thwarted Olympian Kerry (White) and youngest sibling Mike (Stanley Simons) – in his own misshapen image.

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Fritz is also the originator of the titular wrestling move, which involves theatrically placing a hand on an opponent’s head in a vice-like grip until they drop to the floor of the ring and yield to the faux skull-crushing pressure exerted upon them. In Durkin’s hands this becomes an all-encompassing metaphor for Fritz’s forcible parenting style, the terrible irony of its lets-put-on-a-show conception rendered tragic by the terrible fates that befall brother after brother as the demands of their father’s pathological desire for success start taking their toll.

But if laying the blame for everything that happens on Fritz’s toxic masculinity can feel like an oversimplification of the sort wrestling itself deploys (we see in the film’s black-and-white prologue that during Fritz’s career he was frequently cast as the villain in his bouts), Durkin layers in subtler character moments about the dangers of denying who you are and uses wrestling’s paradoxes to deepen the film by showing us the very real athleticism required to engage an audience in a contest they know is rigged.

Wrestling may be fake, its moves worked out and semi-choreographed in advance, but it’s also a live event, subject to big egos going off script and improvisations that can hurt. Life, in another words, can get in the way and the film is full of little grace notes that underscore the complexity of the Von Erichs’ world. It helps that Durkin smartly cribs some some storytelling moves from Raging Bull, though he also infuses the film with abstract moments of his own that pay tribute to the art of performance that makes this bizarre sport so fascinating.

The Iron ClawThe Iron Claw
The Iron Claw

Needless to say, the film itself goes big on performance, with none of the cast more committed than Efron, whose bulked-up physique mimics the steroidal abuse of the times and gives Kevin, whose story really carries the film, a haunted quality thanks to the disconcerting sight of seeing the remnants of Efron’s teen-heartthrob visage now locked in a vein-popping flesh prison of his own making. Likewise, White is perfectly cast as the most naturally charismatic of the brothers and his arrival in the second act gives the film a thrilling jolt.

That said, Durkin sometimes struggles to wrestle this sprawling story into the biopic format. Maura Tierney as family matriarch Dorris and Lily James as Kevin’s loving, career-driven wife Pam are predictably sidelined, furnished with a few beautifully written and acted scenes that give the impression they’re in it more than they are. It’s also a little frustrating Durkin doesn’t have the guts to junk that most groan-worthy of biopic clichés: the epigraphical photo montage of the film’s real-life subjects. But as with his previous films, The Iron Claw seems like a genuine attempt to grapple with the consequences of living life according to some fake ideal. If he has to engage some of the fakeries of the genre to do so, then so be it.

The subject of Jeanie Finlay’s new film Your Fat Friend is author and podcaster Aubrey Gordon, who first found fame using the titular handle to anonymously blog about the way society treats fat bodies. Her first post, “Just Say Fat”, went viral and she built up a huge online following from her home in Portland, Oregon, writing commentary pieces, personal essays and critiques of the way bodies like hers are shamed, marginalised and discussed in a weight-obsessed world.

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Finlay’s film joins Gordon at some point between her anonymous blog taking off and her subsequent emergence in public life as a best-selling author and diet-industry-challenging podcaster. Though the cognitive dissonance of watching scenes of pre-public Gordon discussing her reluctance to let go of her anonymity with a documentary filmmaker is never quite acknowledged, the film itself is fascinating and compelling viewing, not just for the way Finlay’s unobtrusive style captures the graceful way Gordon finds her voice and uses her growing, increasingly visible platform, but also for all the subtle ways it draws attention to how Gordon continually has to navigate all the issues she’s writing and talking about in her daily life, even with her family.

The Iron Claw and Your Fat Friend are in cinemas from 9 February.