‘The Iron Claw’ Portrays a Tragedy of Faith | Sojourners

‘The Iron Claw’ Portrays a Tragedy of Faith

'The Iron Claw' / A24

“Faith, family, and football.” That’s how my family friend replied when I asked him to describe the culture of Texas, where he lives. “Depending on the time of the year, the order of importance changes,” he further quipped. Replace “football” with “wrestling,” and the same can be said for the Von Erich family, as depicted in director Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw 

From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Von Erichs went from being “the greatest family in the history of wrestling” to the most tragic family in the history of sports, as five out of six of the Von Erich children died before the age of 35 (the eldest, Kevin Von Erich is the only brother still living). But The Iron Claw isn’t just a sports tragedy; it’s a faith tragedy, too. Christianity is dangerous when it is used to justify American exceptionalism and toxic masculinity, and the story of the Von Erichs is a cautionary tale of when God and sports mix in all the wrong ways.  

Durkin knew he wanted his retelling of the Von Erichs to be set primarily in two places: the church and the wrestling ring. The Von Erichs were a family of deep faith. “I wanted to look at the parallels between going to church and going to wrestle,” Durkin said in an interview with Sojourners. “Those were the two places that really held the family.”

In Durkin’s portrayal, the Von Erichs believed in the salvific power of both faith and wrestling. Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) captures this sentiment in a voice over near the start of the film: “Ever since I was a child, people said my family was cursed,” he said referring to the “Von Erich curse,” a name given to the string of tragedies that befell the Von Erichs. “Mom tried to protect us with God. Pop tried to protect us with wrestling. He said if we were the toughest, the strongest, nothing could ever hurt us.” 

This sentiment also underscores how his parents Doris (Maura Tierney) and Fritz (Holt McCallany) desired to keep these aspects of the family’s life separate. Commenting on how it was Fritz’s job to keep the boys in the wrestling ring and it was Doris’ job to keep the boys in church, Durkin shared, “They sort of didn’t cross lanes.” In one scene, when Kevin tells his mother that Fritz is being too hard on him and his brothers and that she should intervene, Doris replies, “Oh baby, that’s what your brothers are for.” If the boys were in church on Sunday, it did not matter how Fritz raised them the other days of the week.

Durkin wanted to explore this contrived separation between faith and sport in The Iron Claw. “Had Doris been able to listen to how she was really feeling and push through … if there was more of a dialogue, things would have been different.” 

Tragically, it is this staunch commitment to keeping those aspects of their lives separate that became a blind spot for the sinister ways faith was implicitly and explicitly used to push the Von Erich brothers to their breaking point. Their sibling rivalry, encouraged by their father, is reminiscent of the Old Testament stories of Jacob and Joseph and even Isaac and Esau. In all cases, love is a competitive sport. Throughout the film, Fritz blithely and openly picks favorites among his sons, sharing, “Now, we all know Kerry’s my favorite, then Kev, then David, then Mike. But the rankings can always change.” His tone isn’t jovial or teasing; he’s goading them to compete.  

This painfully crescendos when Mike Von Erich (Stanley Simons), who never wanted to step into the world of wrestling but does so to make Fritz proud, is injured once he enters the ring. The injury causes him to endure a toxic shock induced coma. He dies by suicide soon after Fritz begins to pressure him to get back into the ring. He wouldn’t be the only brother to die this way. 

When another brother dies, Fritz orders his sons not to cry at the funeral. His only words of consolation are, “The Lord decided it was time for David to move on.” The Gospel of Fritz is one of perseverance and endurance — no matter the cost.

Indeed, the only comfort the Von Erich’s could get from their faith was belief in the afterlife. Durkin shared that in his research and conversations with Kevin, the brothers “had some real belief in clarity about what came next if they were to take their lives.” The brothers believed that in the next life they would be reunited with their deceased siblings. “There was a comfort in believing that they were truly going to somewhere more peaceful and better,” Durkin added. “That probably played a part in their decision-making.”  

This is tenderly depicted after Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) dies. In one scene, he wakes up in the afterlife and sees his brothers David, Mike, and Jack, the youngest Von Erich brother who died at the age of 6 due to a freak accident. They exchange a few words, but mainly, they just embrace each other. It is one of the few moments of catharsis and calm in the film. 

I wish all the Von Erich brothers could have experienced that calm and catharsis while they were alive on earth as it was in heaven. But the Von Erich’s faith separated the afterlife and the mortal life, the wrestling ring and the church pew. In my view, The Iron Claw is a call to a more integrated faith. May we never weaponize religion to push our own agenda; may we never confine Christianity to the time spent in church on Sundays.

for more info