It would be reductive to whittle an entire masterpiece of a film down to one single theme regarding familial dynamics, yet I would be remiss if I did not focus on this glaring note in The Iron Claw. The advice to “talk to your brothers about it” is echoed repetitively throughout the course of the film: advice that fully encapsulates the essence of the story. This line is a product of negligent, emotionally absent parenting by people who want to shower in the laurels with their sons but remain devoid of any emotional responsibility by dodging guilt and culpability. The silver-lining: “talking to your brothers about it” results in a transcendent, fraternal bond that makes an emotionally oppressive life worth living.


The film’s name comes from the eponymous signature move from the has-been wrestler and patriarch of the family: Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany). It’s important to note that, in this signature move, Fritz grabs the opponent by the face with a gripping hand, both blinding and manipulating their agency—leaving them reeling and begging for mercy. Fittingly, Fritz uses this tactic—metaphorically—on his four sons throughout the course of the film. Now, it would be seemingly hyperbolic to describe the parenting in this film as the worst I have ever witnessed in my life, but I seriously can’t think of any other way to describe it. The saddest part, though: this is an entirely true story.


It was Fritz Von Erich’s dream to be named the National Wrestling Alliance’s (NWA… no, not the cool one) World Heavyweight Champion. Falling short of that title, because of a self-proclaimed family curse, Fritz vowed to have that title be a part of his family eventually. Even if he wouldn’t be the one to raise that belt over his head, one of his boys would.


The Sean Durkin film follows the perspective of the eldest son and brother, Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron), in his pursuit to be named the World Heavyweight Champion. While this pursuit would make for a great story in and of itself, in The Iron Claw, it serves as the backdrop for a Hamlet-sized, family tragedy (spoiler alert: almost everyone dies). If you want to know more about the plot, watch the movie or read a different review. I need to use this column to talk about the blinding theme of narcissistic parenting leading to the literal demise of almost every single child.


Within the first 20 minutes of the film, the viewer can deduce that Fritz Von Erich is living vicariously through his children—experiencing their passions and accomplishments alongside them. Whether it’s Kevin in the wrestling ring or Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) throwing discus for Team USA, Fritz wants nothing more than his family to be the best. Not only does he push his children, as every intense father of the screen seems to do, but he disregards his children’s wellbeing simultaneously. No excuse should get in the way of greatness, unless that excuse is a supernatural, super-real-and-definitely-not-made-up curse.


This fatherly disregard is not sneaky, though. Fritz explicitly says he does not want to deal with his children’s personal problems or mental health on numerous occasions. Towards the end of the film, after pressuring two of his sons to wrestle until they can’t wrestle any more (because they literally died), Kevin calls his father to be on the lookout for Kerry, as he’s concerned about his mental health. One might think Fritz would take this seriously, considering he already lost two sons (one to suicide). However, Fritz responds how any Texas-father-of-the-year would respond, by telling Kevin that it’s “between [him] and his brother.” What happens as a result, you might ask? You guessed it! Kerry shoots himself in the chest on the front lawn of his childhood home—Fritz working in the field minding his own business.


This negligent parenting is not unique to Fritz, though. Mother Doris Von Erich (Maura Tierney) is just as hands-off. While she doesn’t necessarily push her sons to their death, she still completely disregards their issues, but this time because of her religious piety. Oh, my son died a completely avoidable death? I’ll just keep praying about it! That’ll do it! There is an immediate eyebrow-raising moment in the opening scenes of the film. The youngest brother, Mike Von Erich (Stanley Simons), who, per his gaunt and frail frame, has absolutely no business going into wrestling, is getting berated by Fritz at the kitchen table about not hitting the gym and practicing wrestling. As any good, big brother would do, Kevin kindly attempts to express his concerns to his mother, but instead, he’s met with a nonchalant and terse “talk about this with your brothers; that’s what they’re there for.” Thank God she’s involved when forcing her children to go to church every Sunday, though!


While there’s a lot to discuss about The Iron Claw, the film highlights both sides of shitty parenting: the helicopter parent who’s way too involved in their children’s lives and futures, and the distant, emotionally-removed parent who is too busy minding their own business to pay any mind to their progeny. These parenting styles are different sides of the same neglectful coin. There is no one else to blame for all the sons’ deaths besides mom and dad.


No tragedy is complete without at least one heartwarming instance, though. The refrain of “talk to your brothers about it,” albeit a lazy attempt at parenting, resulted in the brothers being each other’s best friends. They supported each other’s interests, looked out for each other’s safeties, and wanted nothing more than to be with each other at every waking hour. In fact, all Kevin enjoyed about wrestling was being in the ring with his brothers. While still the result of bad parenting, this fraternal bond transcended life and death, as they continued to hang out even in the afterlife. However, don’t let this distract you from the fact that these close relationships didn’t end up developing because every brother, barring Kevin—who lived to tell this story—died a terrible and tragic death.


All this to say, it’s no coincidence: the resemblance between an iron claw and an iron fist. Fritz’s ruthless parenting and incessant pressure on his sons resulted in their deaths, while his and Doris’ narcissism chalked those deaths up to “a curse on the family.” So long as Fritz had wrestling and Doris had religion, everything was hunky dory in their consciences. Kevin was the one who internalized that guilt, but at least he turned that suffering into sharing his story: one about the power of brotherhood and how that intersects with the grave consequences of narcissistic parenting.