In a recent interview, New York Times columnist David Brooks shared a simple question that he sometimes pulls out at dinner parties: “How do your ancestors show up in your life?” I have thought about that question dozens of times since hearing it. I thought about it as I sat across from a young man picking up the pieces of his failed marriage and when I was counseling a new mother trying to heal her childhood wounds of abuse and abandonment. It has been on my mind frequently while meeting with alcoholics, unfaithful spouses, and people who hate the church. And it is at the forefront of my mind, nearly every day, when I stare into the faces of my three sons and wonder how they will answer it.
For better or worse, ancestors are our prologue. For some of us, our ancestors visit us through the form of a particular look, a shared posture, or a similar smile. For others, our ancestors shaped our values in food, music, politics, or religion. Our ancestors may tie us to a land and a place or give us a head start towards wealth or poverty. But sadly, our ancestors can also haunt us; they might shackle us with trauma or a bent towards addiction, shame, or mental illness. Our ancestors visit each of us on the day of our birth and work their ways into our story before a single page has even been written.
Such is the lament of Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) in the opening line of Sean Durkin’s latest biopic, The Iron Claw: “Ever since I was a child, people have said my family was cursed.” And those people appear to be right as Kevin’s words prove to be a foreboding portent for audiences trying to prepare for the unrelenting torrent of pain and loss that’s unleashed throughout the film’s two hours.
In the most sweeping and generic terms possible, Durkin’s film centers on a family of professional wrestlers from Texas and the tragic details of the worst years of their lives. Years in which a religiously devout mother (Maura Tierney) and a narcissistic father (Holt McCallany) would lose all but one of their five sons. For the uninitiated, the Von Erichs were not the sort of wrestlers who donned singlets and harbored Olympic medal dreams, but rather, the sort who wore bikini briefs, flew from the top rope, and thrashed each other with folding chairs. The sort of wrestlers who were filling stadiums and hitting their stride in the golden era of the 1980s and ’90s, the very decades during which men like me were aging into the “prime audience demographic” for the testosterone-obsessed, steroid-fueled, oil-lathered, and highly choreographed world of professional wrestling.
And so it was that my story and the story of the Von Erichs merged for a brief span of time. As a young boy growing up in rural New Hampshire, my television station options were fairly sparse. Until cable arrived somewhere around my mid-teens, I was limited to whatever the hulking antenna mounted on our roof could fetch from the universe. Thankfully for me and my brother, that included the famed plethora of Saturday morning cartoons that dominated weekend airwaves for decades, and most importantly, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling. With a short lifespan of just one season, the series served as a cartoon promotion for the growing WWF (World Wrestling Federation). But for me and my brother, it was the only acceptable portal into a taboo world. Deemed too violent and raunchy by our conservative mother, watching professional wrestling was a forbidden pastime… unless it was in cartoon form.
All this nostalgia was backdrop for the fact that when I took my three sons to see The Iron Claw over the holidays, I gleaned everything I knew about the film from just a handful of trailers floating online. From these curated snippets, I understood it was a movie that centered on the relationship between four sons and their hard-pressing father, whose unwavering support and tenacity helped hoist each of them into wrestling greatness. I suspected it would be a film that could further galvanize our formidable bond as father and sons during Christmas vacation. It did not. At least not in the ways I had imagined.
As foreshadowed by Kevin Von Erich’s opening narration, The Iron Claw is not a comedy but rather, a family tragedy. It is a cautionary tale about generational curses, not blessings. And despite director Sean Durkin’s best efforts at a redemptive ending, the film could only veer so far from the heartbreaking truth of what actually happened. As my sons have all learned from their cynical father, “You can always tell when a movie is based on a true story… because it doesn’t have a happy ending.”
True to form, Durkin’s latest follows his familiar penchant for producing films that are not only thematically connected around the despair of dysfunctional families but also share a similar pedagogical philosophy as well. Durkin’s preferred mode of instruction is parabolic. Like his two previous films—2020’s The Nest and 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene—Durkin lets the story on the screen unfold with the kind of speed that allows for indirect teaching. It is less explicit and more student-driven learning. His films feel authentically accessible, like you are a genuine spectator who is spending a few hours with an incredibly broken family. You never feel like you are being preached at or that the conclusions will be drawn for you. I would suggest that Durkin’s films are not for the faint of heart who prefer their cinematic experiences to be pure entertainment and escape. Instead, they pour you a glass of bourbon, neat, and simply stare at you declaring, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15).
Such is the case with The Iron Claw. At the film’s conclusion, no one needs to tell you that it is a cautionary tale about broken masculinity, sibling rivalry, the idol of success, and the dark pull of generational sins. No one needs to suggest that maybe the film’s deeper meaning lies in its glaring warning against trying to kill your inner demons vicariously through your kids. In short, Durkin’s films are more object lesson than lecture; they show rather than tell. Despite Durkin’s powerful methods, however, some critics have scoffed at his re-telling. Some have criticized him for excluding the sixth brother Chris from the story while others have suggested that the film’s redemptive angle is too forced and sentimental. I think both perspectives miss the purpose of parables.
In the same way Jesus doesn’t give us the name of the good Samaritan, specificity and details are not the goal. In fact, a myriad of details can often obscure, rather than illuminate, the central principle being taught. Durkin’s films harness this beauty of simplicity. Simple, not in the sense of childish or unartistic, but in the way in which the primary message can’t be missed. He doesn’t clutter the story with excessive twists, turns, and unnecessary details. He isn’t trying to confuse the viewer. Instead, he tells a story with unquestionable clarity. Durkin’s films say, “Those were the actions. These are the consequences.” And the consequences abound for the Von Erichs.
Without repeating the particular details of the Von Erichs’ story—which is historically documented and easily found by even cursory research online—I was repeatedly interested in Durkin’s thematic focus on familial curses. An inherently religious concept, generational curses appear in several places where the Bible declares that God will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” (Deuteronomy 5:9; Exodus 20:5, 34:7). And as noted above, this is a partial throughline in all of Durkin’s work. As he remarked previously, “I can make an argument that all families are some level of cult.” That is not a difficult case to make with regards to The Iron Claw, especially as viewers are subjected to the Von Erichs’ particular brand of familial dysfunction where toxic masculinity is venerated like an impenetrable defense against suffering. And yet, like many generational sins, the prescription proves to be poison, causing the very thing it’s supposed to cure.
But this is precisely where Durkin’s film suffers from a lack of moral imagination by not forcing us to look quite deep enough at the complex issue of inherited sin. Durkin’s thematic use of generational curses appears in the Von Erichs’ story like an external boogeyman that lives under the bed and hunts them. The Von Erichs appear as passive bystanders and innocent victims of a sadistic “fate” forged by a shared lineage and last name. Their tragedies appear to come after them from “outside.” The biblical picture, on the other hand, is far more nuanced, with individuals being active participants in their own demise.
Generational sins may undoubtedly shape our bent towards a vice or idol, but we are the ones who ultimately succumb or resist. This is why the Bible speaks of both generational sin and individual responsibility with equal clarity. The prophet Ezekiel records for us, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20). In other words, the power of generational sins lies not in their ability to strangle us with predetermined behaviors or haunt us with the unjust punishments of our ancestors’ failures, but in the way in which the our fathers’ sins are modeled for us: “those failures aren’t inherited; the danger is that they’re imitated.”
Watching The Iron Claw with my sons reminded me of the powerful ways in which my father’s story has shaped my own life, and all the years I spent blaming him for the pile of consequences I incurred through my sinful responses to pain, abandonment, loss, and anger. As the film’s light shone on my sons’ faces, I recognized all the ways I have shackled their lives, too, with tainted blood filled with anxiety, a taste for alcohol, and a rabid hatred of authority. I have modeled escapism, hedonism, and all the wrong ways to handle depression. And yet, I have also shown them the good news of the gospel which reminds us all that the sins winding their way through our ancestry do not have the last word over our lives. I am not a passive victim, and neither are my boys.
Similarly, The Von Erichs were not helpless either. Despite how closely their father Fritz may have aligned in real life with the German soldier he pretended to be in the ring, every child must choose for themselves whether or not to break the sin cycles of their family. This is a decision that our own children often give us the courage to finally make.
In the film’s final scene, Kevin Von Erich sits on the lawn with his two sons, the lone survivor of the Von Erich clan. He cries and his young boys ask about his tears; “I used to be a brother, and now I’m not a brother anymore,” Kevin explains. They respond simply: “We’ll be your brothers, Dad.” As the screen grew black and my sons and I emerged into the crisp night outside the cinema, I couldn’t help but recognize with deep gratitude that God has also allowed my sons to be part of my rescue and how thankful I am for all the ways in which they are not like me. In their stories, I have witnessed the beauty of Christ’s promise that the enemy in the ring has already been defeated by a brother who took on our generational curse and gave freedom to all his kin.