Film Reviews

The Iron Claw & Priscilla

Published January 19, 2024
The Von Erich brothers practise their famous fence sitting moves

If ever a film proves it’s possible to make a powerful story out of anything, it’s The Iron Claw. Those who spent their childhood watching World Championship Wrestling on TV may have distant memories of large, flabby men in tights roaring threats, jumping off turnbuckles, and thumping each other in a peculiarly unconvincing manner. The obvious goodies or baddies drew the predictable cheers or boos. Each had his own special hold or move. Vendettas were carried on for months at a time.

Ring any bells? All this and more will be found in The Iron Claw, the (largely) true story of the Von Erich family of Texas, certified legends of the sport. One of the major achievements of this film is that it makes us consider wrestling as a sport, not simply an outlandish form of theatre in which the moves and outcomes are rehearsed in advance. This may be true, but it doesn’t mean those who play the game are neither ambitious nor competitive.

Director, Sean Durkin, allows us to feel the wrestlers’ pain – not just the physical agonies, but the thwarted hopes and dreams, the need to keep backing up, night after night. Although the film has the makings of a rollicking comedy, it grows progressively darker until it becomes the saddest feature you’re likely to see this year.

In what seems to be Hollywood’s new, preferred way of separating the past from the present, the movie begins in black-and-white, in the late 1950s, as we sample the fearsome skills of Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), and his signature hold, the Iron Claw. Fritz is a villain in the ring, but a family man outside, who wants to be champion and buy a house for his wife and kids.

Fast forward to 1979, and Fritz is the patriarch of a team of promising wrestlers, living on a ranch in Texas. His eldest son, Kevin (Zac Efron), is Texas champion, and has ambitions to be World Champion. For tag team matches he’s joined in the ring by his younger brother, David (Harris Dickinson), who has all the chat while Kevin has the brawn. This ability to talk the talk, while Kevin fluffs his lines, propells David ahead of his brother when it comes to a shot at the World Title.

Kevin explains the rules of the game to a saucy girl named Pam (Lily James), who asks him out on a date, because it never occurs to him to ask her first. When she suggests the matches are all fake, Kevin says it’s really about popularity and how well the audience respond to your character. The wrestlers who draw the crowds are the ones most likely to win their contests. This is made clear in a bout in which youthful, musclebound Kevin has an ugly scrap with overweight, aging champion, Harley Race (Kevin Anton), who is a blob, but an expert in boastful, nasty banter.

When another brother, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), has his hopes of becoming an Olympic discus thrower dashed after Jimmy Carter withdraws the US team from the Moscow games, he comes to join Kevin and David in the ring. Now there are three Von Erichs competing with opponents such as the Fabulous Freebirds, with whom they are buddies after work.

Eventually, a fourth brother, Mike (Stanley Simons), will join the team, even though he’d sooner play in a band. It’s clear that no-one in this closest of families can resist Fritz’s constant demands to be the toughest, the strongest, the best. None of the boys have a will of their own. They are like soldiers who jump at their father’s command – and love it. Their mother, Doris (Maura Tierney), looks after their meals and churchgoing, but is content to let Fritz bring up his sons the way he sees fit.

Kevin explains to Pam that he had an older brother named Jack Junior, who died at the age of seven. It was, he suggests, because of the “Von Erich curse”. Well, a curse in a movie is just like a gun. If one is produced it will inevitably be used. This curse kicks in with more force than anything the brothers encounter in the ring, draining the fun out of the story and replacing it with dread. The crazy wrestling scenes continue, against opponents such as Rick Flare (Aaron Dean Eisenberg), who makes Liberace look like something from a Samuel Beckett play, but the bouts feel ever more frantic and futile.

There was a sixth Von Erich brother, named Chris, but Durkin chose to write him out of this ostensibly true story. Watch the movie and you’ll understand his thinking, as there’s a limit as to how much tragedy an audience can absorb.

The problems begin with the domineering influence Fritz exerts over his sons, whom he sees as an extension of himself. As far as he’s concerned it’s “the family” that goes into the ring, challenging for those elusive titles. The sons subscribe wholeheartedly to this vision – they live for each other, and for their father’s dream. Kevin’s romance with Pam comes as a complete surprise to a man who’s only ever wanted to be with his brothers.

Zac Efron, as Kevin, is the heart of this story. Although beefed up to Schwarzenegger proportions, he is the most sensitive of the Von Erichs, the first to question Fritz’s ruthless desire to win at all costs. Efron gives us a convincing portrait of a good-hearted, inarticulate man struggling to overcome the ingrained beliefs and attitudes of a lifetime.

Holt McCallany’s Fritz is the other clear standout. No matter how aggressive and demanding he becomes, we can never doubt his love for his sons. He may be a selfish, destructive force, but he is no ogre. Gradually we realise that the iron claw – the menacing skull clutch he bequeaths to the boys – is no mere wrestling hold. It’s the hand of fate that holds the family in its unbreakable grip.


Priscilla wonders if it was worth waiting for…


If The Iron Claw represents a marked elevation in Sean Durkin’s brief career as a director, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla continues a pattern of under-achievement. With every film since Lost in Translation (2003), she has struggled to inject the requisite drama and energy into her stories, and this tale of Elvis Presley’s teenage bride is no exception.

Although Priscilla is proficiently made and always watchable, Coppola spends a long time introducing us to the characters, then does nothing with them. It takes a full 90 minutes for Elvis and Priscilla tto ie the knot, but the final five years of their relationship slip by in a flash. The bulk of the film is devoted to the confusions and uncertainties of an immature girl who meets the world’s most famous pop star when she is only fourteen, and finds herself the object of a strange, chaste courtship. The reason the relationship began at all was because they met in a US military enclave in Bad Nauheim, Germany, where Elvis was doing his national service. Priscilla’s father was an airforce officer at the same base.

Read any the biographies of Elvis and it’s clear he was himself an immature personality who felt most at home with that entourage of freeloaders he called his “guys”. Despite rumours of stormy relationships with starlets, he appears to have enjoyed the company of teenage girls in a weirdly innocent way. In her memoir, Elvis and Me (1985), on which Coppola has based this film, Priscilla claims she remained a virgin until her wedding night, although she and Elvis were regularly sharing a bed.

This claim has been met with scepticism, but there’s no disputing that Elvis lost interest in Priscilla sexually after she gave birth to Lisa Marie in 1968. Some believe he lost interest when she finished high school. He treated her like a doll to play with, not the love of his life.

Coppola, who has clearly read the biographies, gives us an enigmatic portrait of Elvis that’s probably close to the truth. Peter Pan-like in many ways, he had a surprisingly serious streak, which comes through in scenes when he begins obsessively reading books about spirituality. That phase closes when Colonel Tom Parker gets him on the phone and tells him to give up the books. “Yessir,” says Elvis, who is putty in the Colonel’s hands. His library is quickly consigned to the bonfire.

Perhaps the best part of this film is that it provides a real-world antidote for Baz Luhrmann’s florid, cartoonish Elvis (2022). In Priscilla’s version of events, Colonel Parker is no more than a tiny voice on the phone, and Elvis a readymade global superstar. We get a sense of how alienating life at Gracelands must have been for Priscilla, held in the proverbial gilded cage, surrounded by the ever-present “guys”, waiting for weeks at a time for Elvis to return from shooting yet another schlock musical in which he was always rumoured to be romantically involved with his co-star.

This has an undeniable ring of truth, but it fails as drama because it misses every cue that could create interest or tension. Were Priscilla’s parents so sanguine about letting her go off and live in Gracelands with Elvis when she was only 15 years old? There are many points in this story that invite in-depth dramatisation, but Coppola plays it with the detachment of a 1970s European arthouse flick. The lead actors – relative newcomer, Cailee Spaeny, as Priscilla, and rising Australian star, Jacob Elordi, as Elvis (he gets the accent right!) – give it their best shots, but they are treated as specimens in a lab rather than figures of flesh and blood. When the inevitable need for self-realisation appears, and Priscilla steps out from Elvis’s shadow, it comes across as flat and unconvincing.

There is a disjunction between Coppola’s style and ambition as a filmmaker and her choice of subject. She has taken on one of the most heavily mythologised figures of all time and stripped away the glamour, revealing an Elvis seen only by his close buddies and Priscilla. What we experience by stepping into her shoes is mainly bewilderment and frustration. Priscilla is not like a Monica Vitti character in an Antonioni film, she is a naïf who becomes an object of adoration for a perennial man-child. Living at Gracelands is like living in Disneyland. She drifts, and we drift with her, from one awkward moment to the next. The sum total of these moments makes for a completely realistic scenario which never seems true to life.





The Iron Claw

Written & directed by Sean Durkin

Starring: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Holt McCallany, Maura Tierney, Stanley Simmons, Lily James, Kevin Anton, Aaron Dean Eisenberg, Michael Harney

USA/UK, MA 15+, 132 mins






Directed by Sofia Coppola

Written by Sofia Coppola, after a book by Priscilla Presley & Sandra Harmon

Starring: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen, Dagmar Dominczyk, Luke Humphrey, Tim Post, Lynne Griffin, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Dan Abramovici, Matthew Shaw, R. Austin Ball, Olivia Barrett, Tim Dowler-Coltman, Jorja Cadence

USA/Italy, M, 113 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 20 January, 2024