I, Tonya is a breathless tragicomedy based on true events that just so happens to perfectly illustrate how woefully ill-equipped our present set of systems are for dealing with abuse. The movie barrels along with a breathless narrative and a searing sense of righteous fury. To top it all off, it dares us to reexamine a woman we helped turn into a national punchline.
Craig Gillespie brings a Rashomon quality to I, Tonya. Gillespie and his screen writer Steven Rogers based the movie on a series of interviews with Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Tonya’s Mother LaVona (Allison Janney), and a producer for Hard Copy played by Bobby Cannavale. Each one tells their own version of Tonya and “the incident.”
“The incident,” for those too young to remember, is this: in 1994 figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a man who claimed to be hired by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff. I, Tonya however does more than just examine “the incident” it dares to indict the twenty-four-hour news cycle that all but convicted her as well as us the audience for participating in it.
The search for truth comes from the characters themselves, cauldron of unreliable narrators all seeking vindication. By the end we are only sure of our own complicity.
In other words I, Tonya does quite a lot and to its credit mostly succeeds. Gillespie and Rogers portray the emotional and physical abuse Tonya suffers from her mother and her husband mundane and laconic. The abuse has a matter-of-fact quality that lends an air of horror and immediacy to it. I, Tonya is brutally honest about abuse and the effect the cycle of violence has on a person.
I, Tonya almost methodically lays the groundwork to help clearly illustrate how the systems set in place—then and now—hinder women more than help them. Tonya gets a restraining order against Jeff, and yet still he shows up to her home with a gun. He accidentally fires the gun, grazing her head with a bullet. He grabs her and puts her in the car and is eventually pulled over. As the officer talks to Jeff, Tonya looks to the camera. “He had alcohol bottles in the backseat and the officer found him in possession of two guns. And he never even said one word to me. That’s when I learned…you can’t trust the authorities.”
Over and over again, Tonya is betrayed by the people and things she loves the most. Tonya Harding is one of seven women figure skaters in America to ever successfully pull off a triple axle. But this somehow isn’t enough.
Growing up she is told time and time again that she needs to dress fancier to be taken seriously. Her father skins a handful of rabbits and makes her a fur coat. She is mocked and ostracized. Figure skating is as much presentation as it is talent, and Tonya isn’t presenting the picture the figure skating community wants. Her ambition to go to the Olympics is hampered by the “image” she projects: herself.
Tonya skates to ZZ Top while other skaters play Mahler and Tchaikovsky. She’s a girl from rural Kentucky and the judges don’t let her forget it. She’s told by one judge that the reason her scores are low has nothing to do with her ability but the fact that she doesn’t present the image the association wants to show to the world. They want someone with a model, wholesome American family. “But I don’t have a wholesome American family,” she responds.
Tonya cusses, smokes, and shoots guns. She’s also one the most naturally talented and driven figure skaters the skating community has ever seen. I, Tonya shows us the sheer guts of a woman who yearned to be part of something that wanted nothing to do with her. She got even in the best way possible—she became a legend. The tragedy of the legend she left behind is not of her making.
But Rogers doesn’t let Tonya off the hook completely either. As much as she’s beaten down both by her chosen community and her loved ones, Tonya seems incapable of taking responsibility for her actions. “It wasn’t my fault,” is a constant refrain throughout the movie. The phrase becomes more complicated and begins to carry more weight as the story progresses.
Margot Robbie turns in a blistering performance of sheer fury and vulnerability. Gillespie tosses out slow motions, whip pans, and flashy editing, but it’s Robbie that propels I, Tonya. Robbie’s Harding has a ferocity and a tenaciousness that has us rooting for her even when we groan inwardly as she keeps taking Jeff. Her Tonya is less acting and more eerie possession.
Robbie’s performance is all the more impressive when we consider the dazzling and darkly comic manner in which the story is being told. As stated before, the structure is essentially a mockumentary from multiple points of view. This could have resulted in a fractured narrative, but instead it leads to a morbidly nuanced comedic portrayal of class. I, Tonya is never condescending; the humor comes from places of human truth. The stupidity that is mocked is the stupidity of criminals who refuse to admit the limits of their knowledge.
Take Jeff’s best friend and confidant Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). I’ve known people like Shawn growing up, as I suppose we all have. Shawn lives at home with his parents yet boasts about his ‘government ops experience’ and ‘expertise in counter terrorism measures’. When Jeff hires him to mail some threatening letters to Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) we can see the train about to jump the rails from the next county over.
It’s clear why Jeff has Shawn as a friend though. Shawn feeds Jeff’s ego and makes him feel like a bigger man than he is. Jeff realizes too late just how unhinged Shawn is and furthermore what he’s done to Tonya’s life. Sebastian Stan never asks for our sympathies and rightfully so.
Jeff beats Tonya with such a casual frequency that it makes it all but impossible to even like him. Stan’s performance is so tough to swallow not just because it’s so good but because there’s nothing special about Jeff. You can, and have, met Jeff anywhere. He’s not particularly evil but neither is he good. Jeff is somehow the hero but also the victim of his own story which is counter-intuitive until you realize that’s how most abusers see themselves. Stan shows us how Robbie’s Harding could have fallen for him without making us do the same.
Gillespie’s style could easily be called derivative but we should also call it what it is: effective. Though the film has the look of a Martin Scorsese film, it lacks the same sort of daring musical choices that Scorsese is known for. Nor does it bubble with the same wonderful unpredictable energy that Scorsese infuses into his films. Gillespie chooses songs that tell us as what to think and feel as opposed to songs that would add anything extra to the scene or force us to think about the events in a different way.
But this is a minor quibble. Despite the obvious Scorsese influences and obvious song choices it works. It works spectacularly. Margot Robbie is effortlessly amazing despite the less-than-stellar CGI they use to show us the triple axle spin. Robbie is an integral part to I, Tonya’s dizzying momentum. Whenever the story briefly switches to Jeff and Shawn, the film begins to slightly drag.
Allison Janney, it should be mentioned, is brilliant as usual. Her LaVona is a bitter, callous woman who discovers too late that she actually loves her daughter. The violence she visits upon Tonya seems more brutal because of the rage behind it. LaVona denies the accusations while somehow also justifying them. To her, love and violence go hand in hand.
Gillespie’s greatest achievement is how much fun he’s made I, Tonya. It is dark and glaringly honest about abuse as well as classism. But I, Tonya is never a slog to sit through. This is in large part due to the brilliant and deeply joyous editing of Tatiana S. Riegel. She and Gillespie give the film the feeling of a rushed confession without allowing I, Tonya to devolve into a chaotic mass of overlapping voices. It is deeply entertaining and weirdly fun without ever taking any of its characters for granted. Along with the laughs and clever little insights into how messed up our media cycle is and how we’re partially to blame, there is the quiet devastation of a life destroyed.
I, Tonya is easily one of the greatest films of the year. It has unquestionably one of the best performances of the year in Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding. Clear-eyed and loving, I, Tonya portrays its subject in a fair light—at least a fairer light than we were ever willing to give her before.