Monday 12 February 2024

Three falls and a submission: "The Iron Claw"

The writer-director Sean Durkin was a shade unlucky with 2020's
The Nest, a sinuous dissection of Thatcherite greed that found itself caught up in the bottleneck of post-lockdown releases; one of the strongest British-shot films of the past decade, it went largely overlooked at the time, but its doomy mood has lingered over and arguably intensified with every hamfisted cashgrab made by the current Tory administration. (If ever a film was a warning from history.) Durkin has picked himself up, dusted himself down and returned to the fight with a project that, on the surface, might appear a solid-gold crowdpleaser. The Iron Claw's subject is pro wrestling, and more specifically the von Erich dynasty, a real-life grappling empire of the 1980s headed by gruff patriarch Fritz (Holt McCallany), a former heel whose skullcrushing signature move lends the film its title, and extending to a clutch of brawny, blonde, distinctly all-American sons (played here by Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson and Stanley Simons) obliged to jostle for pa's attention and affection. Yet if you're expecting another Fighting with My Family-style romp, as several patrons at the public screening I attended last night clearly were, think again. The Iron Claw could only ever be classified as a Sean Durkin idea of a crowdpleaser, its constituent elements these: a family who were tougher on one another than they ever were on their opponents; kids chock full of testosterone, with a sketchy sense of where fakery ends and reality begins; talk of a curse; brief, jolting establishing shots of a visibly unhappy family portrait, a crucifix mounted to a wall, and a fully loaded gun cabinet; and a pre-film BBFC card warning of strong language, drug misuse and suicide to come. The template, then, isn't the cheery, Stephen Merchant-directed Fighting - or David O. Russell's boisterous The Fighter of a decade or so ago - but Bennett Miller's stark, brooding Foxcatcher of 2014; you find yourself adopting the brace position long before Durkin drops "Don't Fear the Reaper" on the soundtrack twenty minutes in.

The first question here is what kind of tragedy we have been gathered to receive, and American audiences may have had the advantage of prior knowledge in this respect: here is a story that made barely a dent in the British news media at the time of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. I don't know how reassuring it is that Durkin has tamped down the overt stylisation that some found so alienating in his earlier work. Gone are those tics and tricks half-inched from Herrs Haneke and Tarr - the long, glacially slow tracking shots leading us inexorably towards some new and unexplored darkness - in favour of an approach that is more upfront formally; an opening credit reads "inspired by true events", and those events are broadly what Durkin films. Nevertheless, he does something interesting and distinctive (if possibly counterproductive) with his fight scenes. Rather than tossing us pell-mell into the middle of the ring - as, say, Darren Aronofsky did so effectively in the course of 2008's The Wrestler - Durkin stubbornly stands back from the off, the better to expose the pulled punches and prerehearsed smackdowns. This is a very strange way to make a living, The Iron Claw ventures, and an even stranger path to the American dream of self-realisation: actual, perishable flesh-and-blood recast as unstoppable he-men whose wins and losses are entirely arbitrary, decided by the toss of a coin or promoter's whim. I say counterproductive, because there are expectational dangers that follow from assembling a photogenic cast and then peering at them as though through a microscope. One is that The Iron Claw begins to feel like a film about sports made by a social-sciences major, albeit one who maybe knew monomaniacally focused jocks like this at college and had every reason to maintain some distance from them. Another risk is perhaps best expressed as a question: are we ever going to get close enough to these characters to feel their very real pain when it comes, as von Erich lore dictates it must?

You will formulate your own response; mine would be yes and no, a mixed result I put down partly to the still semi-clinical handling (forever eliding the worst of these events, perhaps out of respect to the von Erichs who survived) and a growing sense this tragedy was born out of a freak, near-unrepeatable set of circumstances, foremost among them the US boycott of the 1980 Olympics. (Try as you might to take this dive, it couldn't happen to you.) It's no fault whatsoever of this ensemble, a living-breathing redefinition of tightknit. We note how, despite their pronounced physiological differences, these brothers act and feel like actual brothers. We can't fail to spot the odd note of dissent in the ranks, like the aside from ma Maura Tierney (shrewdly cast for her resting sour face) about the music her husband used to play for her, a road not taken as Fritz backed the family into a corner that looks indistinguishable from a dead end. We may well notice Efron acting his heart out from beneath the dermal equivalent of a Ninja Turtles costume. But it feels like a stretch to claim The Iron Claw as some clinching treatise on performative masculinity when it retains such a slender grasp on the world beyond the gym, the locker room and the ring over there in the distance. (Durkin is so uninterested in the options represented by the Efron character's wife that she's ended up being played by Lily James.) What we end up watching is a ghostly, closed-off case study, as much a movie about a cult as was Martha Marcy May Marlene, even if its closing bout of sentiments suggest its maker is older, wiser and better prepared to express himself than the macho martyrs he's burying. Durkin remains an intriguingly oppositional imagemaker, celebrating a full decade of showing us what's wrong with the world without ever once letting slip what he's truly passionate about. There is undeniable fascination in encountering a work so obviously critical of the dads-and-lads axis that has dominated American cinema for decades - and also in seeing a film in the multiplexes that patently doesn't want to be there. But I could equally understand why certain cinemagoers were themselves beginning to shift so uneasily in their seats. A movie like The Wrestler sends us out into the night high on the scent of popcorn and embrocation. The Iron Claw arrives bearing only the deadening stench of embalming fluid. Enter the Undertaker.

The Iron Claw is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

No comments:

Post a Comment