The Poignant Physicality of Zac Efron

Pro wrestling, now and then, tends to favor bodies that a blog I used to visit would call “ ’70s big”: “muscular, bouldered . . . yet still pleasing.” Of the Von Erich brothers, Efron’s Kevin is the only one whose form fully fits the bill. (“Oh, my God,” the woman seated next to me in the theatre whispered when he first came onscreen.) There is nothing wrong with the performances of Harris Dickinson, whom I’m enjoying on the Hulu thriller “A Murder at the End of the World,” or of Jeremy Allen White, whose hangdog stare, further weighed down here by a long, shaggy hairdo, lends his character an appropriate sense of foreboding. But their combined pathos doesn’t quite make up for their relatively coltish frames, which lend them a diminished presence under the arena lights, even in moments when the screenplay calls for them to outpace their brother in wrestling fame. The film is an Efron vehicle, to be sure. Kerry, David, and Michael all suffer dark fates, but for an image of pain we look to Kevin—the way his neck veins pop after his opponent performs a suplex on him on a concrete floor, or the way he sets his jaw in mandated stoicism during a family funeral.

Dramatic physical changes are permitted, encouraged, and rewarded if they’re done in the service of a role. In the decade following Efron’s breakout turn, at the age of nineteen, as a jock-turned-theatre-kid in “High School Musical,” he went from twink to twunk, as one does if one is a recovering teen heartthrob. But, with an appearance in the 2017 movie “Baywatch,” he ventured into corporeal extremes. Efron looked, as meatheads would put it, ripped to the bone, with muscles that seemed ready to break free of his sunworshipper’s tan. (He qualified as beefy even alongside his co-star Dwayne Johnson, who is nearly a head taller.) Efron has spoken about the trials of obtaining and maintaining that physique, including taking “powerful diuretics,” overtraining, and suffering from an insomnia that threw him into a depression. In 2020, a Netflix travel series called “Down To Earth with Zac Efron” débuted, and a clip made the rounds showing the actor nearly brought to tears by a bite of pasta. “I’m so happy that I’m eating carbs again,” he said. The tabloids surveilled Efron’s transition into what they rushed to describe as “dad bod,” such that, when pictures from “The Iron Claw” were released, revealing his prodigiously muscled torso, he was deemed “unrecognizable” once again.

But “The Iron Claw” is as much a study of Efron’s face—that face—as his body. In profile or silhouetted or dead-on in closeups, it is the shock absorber of the entire drama. Kevin is not much of a talker; his mouth is shy and his eyes are downcast, and his deficient charisma leads to a demotion in his father’s estimation—to win titles in wrestling, after all, you need more than brawn. When he meets the woman who will become his wife (Pam, played by Lily James), she must prompt him to ask her out. On their date, Pam diagnoses Kevin with “oldest-brother syndrome” before he regretfully informs her that his late oldest brother is frozen in time at the age of six, as though the loss was elemental to his identity. Not that he’ll let it show—his jaw, as counterpoint, remains resolute. “I must have the, uh . . . the second-oldest-brother syndrome,” he says with a small, sad smile.

“Iron Claw” will, I’m sure, invite comparison with Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” another film anchored by a star with an altered face. But whatever commonalities there are between Mickey Rourke’s performance in that movie and Efron’s here, the actors’ displays of a wretched physicality are differently framed. Besides the obligatory closeup of an injection to the buttocks and an affinity for eighties rock music, the look and rhythms of the two films are as foreign to each other as Jersey and Texas. “The Wrestler” tracks the plodding minutiae of wrestling in the aftermath of stardom: Rourke’s character, the Ram, pumps his iron in ratty gray sweatsuits and takes a squeeze bottle of peroxide to his stringy locks. There’s an alternating dignity and indignity to the Ram’s life that won’t be resolved by romance, by parenthood, by labor, least of all whatever happens in the ring. All that remains, by the film’s final shot, is an ambivalent wall of sound.

“The Iron Claw” concludes on a restorative image: in lieu of sweat, there are tears. For all that the film puts Kevin through, it does not want to relinquish its exaltation of certain things, namely the family unit, despite its perpetual failures. Tragedy in the movie—the “curse” that is said to haunt the Von Erichs—is the bad luck of bad fathering. The only remedy is a new generation to take another go at it. In the final scene, Kevin’s two sons comfort their father, who has been moved to tears watching them toss the football around, as he once had with his brothers. “Everybody cries,” they reassure their father. It’s just the sort of line that, delivered decades earlier, might have kept Kevin’s brothers intact, the film implies. With his boys’ permission, the brother turned dad finally lets his trembling jaw give way. ♦

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