If you came of age in Texas during the 1980s, you knew the Von Erichs. If you were like me, you loved, even worshipped, this dynasty of wrestling brothers from Denton County, despite not really knowing the first thing about professional wrestling. The Von Erichs’ celebrity transcended their sport. They were the superheroes next door, their Saturday-morning-cartoon muscles and rock-and-roll hair embodying all the action-movie cool of Reagan-era America. As a child—despite never, to my knowledge, watching an entire wrestling match—I dutifully collected each of the Von Erichs on posters that were given away by Pizza Inn during the brothers’ gloriously goofy reign as its TV spokesmen. They were walking myths to me, like Hercules or the Incredible Hulk. I knew them only as ideas: strong, invincible, pure. 

But if you didn’t grow up around here or then, you probably only know the Von Erichs as a tragedy, the story of six brothers slowly, agonizingly whittled down to one. Their rise and fall begat another living legend: the “Von Erich curse” that has, by now, eclipsed whatever memory remains of the family’s early triumphs. The Iron Claw, debuting in theaters next week, aims to honor the fallen Von Erichs by going beyond those myths, to celebrate their lives and excavate the demons that drove them to an early grave. 

Directed by Sean Durkin, The Iron Claw is, unsurprisingly, an often harrowing affair. While its dark-side-of-the-ring grittiness elicits comparison to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, it has as much in common tonally with Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, a film The Iron Claw evokes in its sense of gloomy inevitability (and copious seventies-rock needle drops). For a movie about giant wrestlers, it’s surprisingly pensive and intimate, a quiet little family drama that also happens to feature guys getting walloped with folding chairs. Ultimately, though, the film doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding who the Von Erichs were, or even why they died. The brothers remain more useful as symbols. We watch as these doomed men beat the hell out of themselves, both in and out of the ring, grappling in fights that we know to be fixed until—like the best wrestling matches—their torment becomes a stand-in for our own suffering.

Part of The Iron Claw’s distance can probably be attributed to its perspective, which is filtered through the eyes of the original dynasty’s sole survivor, Kevin Von Erich. Played by Zac Efron behind a wall of tortoiseshell abs, Kevin is the saintly stiff of the team, a dedicated athlete and good soldier whose inner monologues, delivered in voiceover, help to fill the gaps created by his awkward stoicism. Kevin loves his brothers deeply, arguably to a fault. And when he begins to lose them—including three by their own hand—he can only ask, with increasing desperation, how something like this could keep happening to his family.

It’s a valid question. It’s also one that The Iron Claw dances around answering, leaving much about the late Von Erichs’ inner lives to be inferred, each of their final moments occurring tastefully off screen. In lieu of conclusions, both Kevin and the film return repeatedly to the “curse,” which here takes on the aura of the supernatural. It’s discussed like a disease or genetic mutation, one Kevin worries about passing on to his heroically patient wife, Pam (Lily James), and their young sons. It is Pam who finally suggests that this “curse” might have a name—that if there’s anyone to blame, she says, surely it’s Kevin’s father, Jack, who wrestled as the Nazi-themed villain Fritz Von Erich before pushing his sons into the family business. 

But The Iron Claw, which borrows its name from Jack’s signature finishing move, never fully commits to this idea. Jack, as played by Holt McCallany, is certainly tough and demanding with his boys, but the film never portrays him as abusive. He also dotes lovingly on their mother, Doris (Maura Tierney, conveying a lifetime of self-repression with just a purse of her lips). Jack seems just as much a victim here of forces beyond his control or even comprehension.

Kerry Von Erich’s drug abuse certainly played a role in his death, as did his depression over losing a foot in a motorcycle accident (and his subsequent struggle to hide his disability). The film touches on both, leaning on Jeremy Allen White’s quietly volatile performance as the Von Erichs’ behemoth breakout star. White, at five-foot-seven, doesn’t come close to the physical presence of a man so large that he once shamed Arnold Schwarzenegger into keeping his shirt on, but as on The Bear, White can do a lot of heavy lifting with just a hollowed-out stare, his rimmed eyes hinting at Kerry’s deep well of guilt and frustrated rage. He’s ably matched by Stanley Simons, who plays the perpetually haunted Mike, the brother who was forced into a role he never really wanted, and whose sadness seemed to settle over all the Von Erichs like a suffocating cloud.

Perhaps because it’s never quite clear how seriously we’re supposed to take the actual wrestling—the film takes pains to establish that although the bouts are grueling, their outcomes are staged—the film doesn’t spend too much time reliving the Von Erichs’ victories. Instead, it offers only fleeting glimpses of happier milestones like Kerry’s 1984 trouncing of Ric Flair, or his brief foray into the WWF big leagues under the name Texas Tornado. As a result, much of The Iron Claw feels suffused with grief, its back half especially becoming a grim procession of mourning that’s summed up by a memorable scene where Tierney’s Doris frets because she only has one funeral dress to wear. 

I can only guess that this won’t matter to audiences who go into The Iron Claw cold, knowing only the vaguest outlines of the Von Erichs’ tale, or perhaps knowing nothing at all. Personally, I couldn’t help lamenting that The Iron Claw not only fails to offer new insight into the brothers’ deaths—even leaving Chris Von Erich, who committed suicide in 1991, out of the film completely for time—but it also fast-forwards through the better days of their lives. We get just a few glimpses of the Von Erichs when they are still brimming with potential, pumping iron to Rush records and cruising frat parties. The film sparks most in those early scenes set against the nostalgic neon glow of the eighties Dallas skyline, when the Von Erichs—and the city that surrounded them—seemed invincible and electric. Selfishly, I found myself wishing it could have lingered there a bit longer, before that golden myth gave way to gray and murky reality.

Staff writer John Spong profiled Kevin Von Erich in 2005. Now, he discusses those interviews and reflects on what’s at the heart of it all.