The tragic and comedic display of American wrestling, complete with its emotional display of masculinity and dramatic theatrics, is the focus of Sean Durkin’s poignant and unusual true story film. It is inspired by the real-life story of the Von Erich family, who can be compared to the Von Trapp family but with a desire for aggressive and dangerous behavior due to steroid use.
The Von Erichs were a family known for their involvement in professional wrestling during the 1980s in Texas. The sons were large and wore wrestling gear, while their controlling father acted as their manager. The father, who had been bitter and overly obsessed with his sons’ success, had failed to achieve fame as a young wrestler himself. Due to his harmful parenting and toxic masculinity, the Von Erichs faced numerous tragic events. This story may potentially be paired with Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, although the events depicted here are based on true events.
The main character in the film is Zac Efron, portraying Kevin Von Erich, the oldest wrestler-son of the dynasty. Efron’s physical appearance in the movie is quite remarkable. Gone is the elfin boy we knew from High School Musical; that was clearly his “Bruce Banner” phase. Now, he has transformed into a significantly bulkier figure, with his facial features taking on a more square-jawed look reminiscent of a combination of David Hasselhoff and Desperate Dan. (Efron has stated that this transformation is due to surgery following a freak accident.) Jeremy Allen White portrays Kevin’s brother Kerry, an aspiring Olympic athlete in the discus event; Harris Dickinson plays David, and Stanley Simons plays Mike, who dreams of becoming a musician. Maura Tierney portrays their tense mother, Doris, who avoids discussing emotional difficulties with her sons. Holt McCallany portrays their stern and imposing father, Fritz, who created a move called the Iron Claw, where he grips his opponent’s skull with his hand in a menacing hold. He uses this move on his sons to toughen them up.
The boy named Kevin is constantly trying to please his father, but always falls short. He only finds happiness when he meets his future wife, Pam (played by Lily James), who boldly asks him about the elephant in the room on their first date. This question about the authenticity of professional wrestling is typically seen as a female role, challenging the male-dominated world. However, Kevin confidently responds that there is nothing fake about it. Wrestlers are recognized by the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) for their skill, technique, and ability to draw in crowds. But it is evident that their performances in the ring are based on improvisation within a predetermined storyline.
In Durkin’s film, the concept of unreality is counteracted by the very real suffering endured by the Von Erich family. This includes grueling training, accidents, and the constant pressure to please a father who may never fully love them. As Christians, the family’s home is adorned with a crucifix that brings to mind Roland Barthes’ essay, “The World of Wrestling.” In it, he recalls a fan calling out “He is dead, little Jesus, there on the cross” as a wrestler writhes in pain. While Durkin does not question the sacrifices made for wrestling in this film, there is a strong physical presence and the emotional aftermath scene is impactful.