The spectacle of American wrestling, with all its poignant pantomime machismo and showbiz fury, is the subject of Sean Durkin’s deeply sad, true life drama based on the case of the Von Erich family. The Von Erichs were a professional wrestling dynasty from Texas in the 1980s; giant boys in wrestling boots and trunks and their taskmaster father as manager. The old man was embittered and fanatically energised on his sons’ behalf in time-honoured fashion by his own failure to win glory as a young contender. As a result of his brutally dysfunctional parenting and toxic masculinity, the Von Erichs were plagued by a succession of heartbreaking calamities. At its centre is Zac Efron, playing Kevin.

Von Erich, the dynasty’s oldest wrestler-son. Efron’s physical appearance in this film is quite extraordinary. The boyish looks we knew from High School Musical are gone; that was evidently his Bruce Banner phase. Now, he has bulked up to a staggering degree, and his whole face and head have changed into a more thick-jawed look. (Efron has explained it is the result of surgery following a freak accident.) Jeremy Allen White (from The Bear!) is his brother Kerry, a frustrated Olympic athlete in the discus event; Harris Dickinson is David, and Stanley Simons is Mike, who really wants to be a musician. Maura Tierney plays their tense mother, Doris, who doesn’t want to talk to her sons about any emotional difficulty, and Holt McCallany plays their glowering, crewcut dad Fritz, who, while a wrestler, invented a hold called the Iron Claw, the hand clamping on the opponent’s skull in a fearsome grip. He does it on the boys to toughen them up. The boy who wants to please his dad the most is Kevin, who is never quite good enough. Kevin, in fact, only finds happiness with his future wife Pam (Lily James), who asks him on their first date about the elephant in the living room.” Isn’t wrestling fake?”. Kevin replies there’s nothing fake about it. Wrestlers are rewarded by the NWA, or National Wrestling Alliance, for their skill and technique and also their box office charisma.

But it’s clear that their moves in the ring are a question of improvising within a broadly pre-arranged narrative. Durkin shows us that the unreality is offset by the very real agony of the Von Erichs’ experience: the punishing training, the accidents, the wrenching need to please a father who will never quite love you, the injuries and the fatalities. The family is Christian, and there is a repeated close-up of a crucifix in the family home. In this film, it perhaps isn’t clear what the sacrifices have been for, and Durkin is sufficiently loyal to wrestling and its fanbase not to question it.

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Boluwatife Adesina is a media writer and the helmer of the Downtown Review page. He’s probably in a cinema near you.

About Author / Boluwatife Adesina

Boluwatife Adesina is a media writer and the helmer of the Downtown Review page. He’s probably in a cinema near you.

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