Painkiller: A Movie Review of ‘The Iron Claw’


Cole Burgett

Article ID:



Jan 17, 2024


Dec 27, 2023

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**Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for The Iron Claw.**

The Iron Claw

Written and Directed by Sean Durkin

Produced by Tessa Ross, Juliette Howell, Angus Lamont, Sean Durkin, and Derrin Schlesinger

Starring Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Holt McCallany, and Lily James

(A24, 2023, Rated R)

Christmas 2023, Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw has movie critics in a vise. The film has received no small amount of critical acclaim since its late-December release, already nabbing awards from the National Board of Review, as well as being named one of the year’s ten best films.1 Chronicling the meteoric rise of the Von Erich family on the professional wrestling circuit over about a fifteen year period (from the late ’70s to the early ’90s), the film is less about the world of “sports entertainment” than it is the emotional and psychological duress of lead character Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron), as tragedy after tragedy strikes the family. The result is a somewhat disturbing but, perhaps surprisingly, compassionate feature that is somehow less bizarre than the real-world events it depicts.

The History Behind the Story. The Von Erich name is synonymous with professional wrestling royalty but today has a notoriety attached to it that isn’t entirely unearned. The family’s saga begins with Jack Barton Adkisson, a discus thrower and football player at Southern Methodist University in the early 1950s. After dropping out of college to pursue a career in professional wrestling, Adkisson trained under Stu Hart (the patriarch of perhaps the only other professional wrestling family with a reputation to rival that of the Von Erichs — the Harts) in Calgary before adopting the persona of a menacing German dubbed “Fritz Von Erich.”2 The character quickly became a formidable name in the industry, especially during a time when sentiments regarding the Second World War were still a visceral part of the North American zeitgeist. He popularized “the iron claw,” a move that saw him grip an opponent’s head with one hand and squeeze the tips of his fingers into the skull.3

The first of many tragedies to come struck in 1959, while Adkisson and his wife, Doris, were living in a trailer park in Niagara Falls. Their young son, Jack Barton Jr., stepped on the tongue of a trailer, was electrocuted, fell into a puddle of melting snow, and drowned at the age of six. With two other sons — Kevin and David — to think about, the family pressed on, with Adkisson finding success in the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) stronghold of St. Louis throughout the early ‘60s, before becoming the promoter for the NWA’s Dallas territory in Texas.4

As the years progressed, Adkisson’s focus shifted from his own career to building a legacy through his sons, three more of which were born throughout the ’60s — Kerry, Mike, and Chris. With all of his sons wrestling under the moniker of Von Erich, the late ’70s marked the beginning of the family’s ascent to stardom, particularly in their home state of Texas, where Adkisson meticulously tailored their image to be that of the local “faces” (the wrestling industry’s term for “good guys,” verses the “heels” or “bad guys,” which is what Adkisson originally played as Fritz Von Erich). Their battles in the “squared circle,” especially against the villainous Fabulous Freebirds, drew massive crowds and generated quite a bit of fervor among wrestling fans.

The Von Erich brothers cultivated a wrestling style that blended classic wrestling moves and high-flying acrobatics, a precursor to the styles of wrestling popular today. Their charisma was unmatched, and they were adored for their down-to-earth personas; however, behind the glitz and glamor, the family was plagued by a series of personal tragedies that would eventually overshadow their in-ring success. In 1984, David (generally considered to be the most talented in-ring performer of the bunch) died at the age of twenty-five while in Tokyo, touring with All Japan Pro Wrestling. The official reason given by the U. S. embassy for his death was ruptured intestines caused by acute enteritis.5 However, wrestlers inside the industry, such as Mick Foley and Ric Flair, have maintained that an overdose of painkillers led to David’s demise.6

Just over a year later, Mike was on tour in Israel when he injured his shoulder. A surgery led to toxic shock syndrome and Mike suffering brain damage and weight loss that prevented his return to the ring. In 1987, Mike drove out to the Adkisson’s old home in Lake Dallas, Texas, penned a short note to his mother, and overdosed on Placidyl.7 Reflecting on the situation with Mike, Kevin said, “He was so private….I don’t think he wanted to disappoint anyone. I know he didn’t want to disappoint Dad.”8

Chris would be the next brother to fall. Standing a mere 5’5” and weighing 175 lbs., he supposedly had the most affection for professional wrestling, though his smaller stature and asthma ensured that he would never make it far in the industry.9 In September 1991, at the age of twenty-one, Chris shot himself outside the family’s farm in Edom, Texas. The contents of his suicide note have never been made public, and “an autopsy revealed traces of cocaine and Valium in his system.”10

Kerry, who had lost his foot in a 1986 motorcycle accident, had become a drug addict. By the time Chris died, Kerry’s wife had left him, taking their two daughters with her. Kerry was arrested in 1992 (the same year his mother, Doris, divorced his father) for forging prescriptions for Vicodin and Valium. He received a probated sentence, only to be found with cocaine and a syringe in his car in January 1993. The following month, Kerry drove out to his father’s house, retrieved the handgun he had given to Jack as a Christmas present, and drove out into the mesquite, where he shot himself, dying at the age of thirty-three.11

By 1995, Kevin, the only living son of Jack Adkisson, had formally retired from wrestling. Jack died of cancer in September 1997, and Doris passed away in 2015.12 Kevin’s sons, Marshall and Ross, continue to wrestle as a tag team today under the Von Erich name.

Fathers and Sons. Over the years, wrestling fans have developed a kind of morbid fascination with the Adkisson family and the seemingly unending series of misfortunes that befell its members. Stories of the “Von Erich curse” have been whispered about for decades. In an interview with Skip Hollandsworth of D Magazine given in 1988, Jack was quoted as saying, “The hell of it is that now people watch us to see what tragedy will happen next. I wish I could explain it, but I can’t. We’re better known now because we die.”13

The fascination clearly remains, as now a major motion picture about the family’s history has found its way to cinema screens. But unlike the usual Hollywood antics, which tend to exaggerate “true events” for the sake of storytelling, The Iron Claw actually reduces the sheer number of deaths the Adkisson family experienced in what must be one of the only actual instances of “the truth is stranger than fiction” in movie history. For example, Jack Jr. is reduced to a footnote, appearing only briefly, while brother Chris is completely omitted from the story. Though the character was apparently in the script for five years, he was ultimately written out because, according to Durkin himself, “there was a repetition to it, and it was one more tragedy that the film couldn’t really withstand. I honestly don’t know if it would have gotten made.”14

The film that has been made, however, has received support from the members of the Adkisson family, including Kevin himself. At the premiere in Dallas, he endorsed the film, Efron’s portrayal of him, and the film’s portrayal of his father.15 Holt McCallany plays Jack as a domineering man who exhibits what today some folks would probably call “toxic masculinity.” He brings up his sons with a strict adherence to the old adage that “real men don’t cry,” even in the face of tragedy, which is actually crucial to the movie’s key emotional beats, culminating in a moment of catharsis before the credits roll.

On Jack’s part, there is a kind of obsession with the world of wrestling (which has, by the way, for a long time been a lightning rod for discussions of masculinity) that is conflated with his ego, fueling him to pressure his sons to bring home a “World Heavyweight Championship” title (the be-all, end-all of wrestling belts at the time), continuing to solidify the Von Erich name in the annals of wrestling history. Early in the film, he casually talks about which of his sons are his favorites — to their faces, over breakfast — and that their performances in the ring can help them move up in the “rankings.” Of course, his firm-handed approach and constantly competitive attitude contributes to the boys’ insecurities, pushing them to their psychological and emotional breaking points.

The film is less a commentary on fatherhood and brotherhood, though, than a series of carefully selected and arranged vignettes designed to chronicle Kevin’s psychological journey from idealistic youth to emotionally-stunted adult. His frustrations with Jack begin early in the film, when he sees how his father belittles Mike (Stanley Simons), and simmer in the background until they reach a boiling point. Immediately following the death of Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), he has an explosive confrontation with his father that, apocryphal or not, has been a long time coming, and becomes a catalyst for the final act of separation — at nearly forty years of age, Kevin finally grows up and becomes his own man.

God the Father. Importantly, shots of a crucifix hanging on the wall of the family’s home bookend the film — although I had to stifle a laugh in the theater, as the members of the Adkisson family were Baptists (never underestimate Hollywood’s ability, however honest the storytelling, to absolutely butcher the realistic expression of religious conviction). Regardless, faith plays a key role in the events of the film, primarily as the vehicle through which their mother, Doris, navigates the tragedies.

There is a way of reading this film and the cycle of deaths as a kind of horror feature, a bloodless slasher wherein God is the monster who picks the family members off one-by-one. And, certainly, there are some happy atheists out there who would be content with this reading; however, what I find remarkable is how Kevin Adkisson — the real one, not the one portrayed by Zac Efron — has maintained some kind of hold on his faith, despite all that transpired.

“I always saw God in lightning,” he remarked to Mike Piellucci earlier this year, when describing what he calls his “day of reckoning,” which supposedly involved him wandering out into a Texas field in the middle of a downpour, standing alone as the last remaining brother of the Adkisson family. “[God] held me up for my children and the things that are important. That was my day of reckoning.”16 Unfortunately, this scene is absent from the film, though I imagine it would look something like the one from Scott Cooper’s film Hostiles (2017) that sees U. S. Army Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), having been threatened with court-martial and loss of pension if he doesn’t escort a Cheyenne chief’s family back to their tribal lands after the Great Sioux War of 1876, screaming at the sky in protest before a peal of thunder drowns him out — as if God Himself thundered, “Stop being selfish. Get up and go.”

It takes a measure of wisdom to read suffering in the context of faith — could the younger Joseph, touched by pride in his sex appeal and preferential treatment from his father, have looked at his brothers and genuinely meant it when he said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to do what has happened on this day, to keep many people alive. So now, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen. 50:20–21)17? And what of the apostle Paul? Could the younger, zealous man known as Saul have looked at Stephen as he lay dying and said, “I count all things to be loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things” (Phil. 3:8)?

Perhaps the one dimension of Kevin Adkisson’s life, which is so important to the man himself (he talks about it a lot), that the film leaves on the fringes is his faith. Maybe this was the wisest decision Durkin made, as it would have taken the film — which is quite tremendous, make no mistake, and absolutely something the Christian cultural apologist should see18 — in a completely different direction and reframed Kevin’s struggle with Jack as not just a struggle with his earthly father. Which, ironically, might have made the film more accessible to wider audiences. After all, what person has not looked at some facet of their life and thought, “God, if you’re actually there…why?”

As I think of it now, this version of The Iron Claw would (more than it already does) bear remarkable similarities to the book of Job — a man who was no stranger to loss, who, despite the obtuse obfuscations and rationalizations of his maybe-well-meaning, maybe-moronic, friends, just wanted Yahweh to come down and tell him what exactly he did to deserve ten dead kids, not to mention the loss of his property, or his ailing health. Kevin Adkisson sees God in lightning. And God answered Job from the storm:

Who is this that darkens counsel

By words without knowledge?

Now gird up your loins like a man,

And I will ask you, and you make Me know!

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell Me, if you know understanding,

Who set its measurements? Since you know.

Or who stretched the line on it?

On what were its bases sunk?

Or who laid its cornerstone,

When the morning stars sang together

And all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:2–7)

Suffice to say, no one cutting a promo in the squared circle has worked a mic like Yahweh. And perhaps the biggest flaw with The Iron Claw is that it, like Job’s friends, struggles with fully depicting and appreciating both the depths of suffering one man faced and the irresolution that comes with it. Kerry, Mike, Chris, and (maybe) David all looked for painkillers — Kevin looked up. None found explanations, but only one of them seemed content with it.

That being said, the film is nevertheless a sobering reflection on triumph collapsing into tragedy, a compassionate and raw examination of one man’s life lived in a spotlight that ultimately fades into the background of a more human and relatable story. The surprisingly profound point, to the degree that the film finds one, is that sometimes the only response to the weight of all things is to just sit down and cry about it.

If only we could hear the thunder.

Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in systematic theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture.


  1. Hilary Lewis, “National Board of Review Names ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Best Film of 2023,” The Hollywood Reporter, December 6, 2023,
  2. Steven Johnson, “Before the Iron Claw: The Origins of Fritz Von Erich,” Slam Wrestling, October 30, 2023,
  3. John Spong, “Six Brothers,” Texas Monthly, October 2005,
  4. Skip Hollandsworth, “The Fall of the House of Von Erich,” D Magazine, February 1, 1988,
  5. Debra Martine, “Acute Enteritis Blamed for Von Erich’s Death,” Dallas Morning News, February 12, 1984,
  6. Mick Foley, Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks (New York: ReganBooks, 1999), 129ff.
  7. Spong, “Six Brothers.”
  8. Kevin Adkisson, quoted in Hollandsworth, “The Fall of the House of Von Erich.”
  9. Robert Wilonsky, “Wrestling with Tragedy,” Dallas Observer, November 20, 1997,
  10. David K. Frasier, “Von Erich, Chris,” Suicide in the Entertainment Industry: An Encyclopedia of 840 Twentieth Century Cases (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002), 332, Google Books, accessed December 27, 2023,
  11. Wilonsky, “Wrestling with Tragedy.”
  12. Kirk Dooley, “Wrestling Matriarch’s Broken Heart Gives Out,” Dallas Morning News, November 13, 2015,
  13. Jack Adkisson (Fritz Von Erich) quoted in Hollandsworth, “The Fall of House Von Erich.”
  14. Sean Durkin quoted in Michaela Zee, “‘Iron Claw’ Director Didn’t Include One Von Erich Brother Because His Death ‘Was One More Tragedy That the Film’ Couldn’t Withstand,” Variety, December 23, 2023,
  15. Watch the interview with Adkisson here: “Wrestling Legend Kevin Von Erich on ‘The Iron Claw,’ Being Portrayed by Zac Efron,” FOX 4 Dallas-Fort Worth, YouTube, November 9, 2023,
  16. Kevin Adkisson, quoted in Mike Piellucci, “Kevin Von Erich Keeps on Going,” D Magazine, August 31, 2023,
  17. All Scripture quotations are taken from the Legacy Standard Bible (LSB).
  18. Cf. Cole Burgett, “Stronger Than the Ropes: Family, Fellowship, and Local Professional Wrestling,” Christ and Pop Culture, November 13, 2023,
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