A film review by Craig J. Koban February 5, 2018

RANK: #8

I, TONYA jjjj
 

2017, R, 121 mins.

 

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding  /  Allison Janney as LaVona Golden  /  Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly  /  Julianne Nicholson as Diane Rawlinson  /  Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt  /  Caitlin Carver as Nancy Kerrigan

Directed by Craig Gillespie  /  Written by Steven Rogers

Tonya Harding became a media punching bag over twenty years ago.  She's infamously more well known for being linked to an attack - perpetrated by her then husband and his accomplices - against fellow figure skating competitor Nancy Kerrigan, which occurred just before the 1994 Olympics.  Even though - by her own claims - she was not directly responsible for the attack, she nevertheless had intimate links to those that were and the ensuing scandal rocked the athletic world and ultimately led to her being banned from her sport for life by the U.S. Figure Skating Association.  

What most people tend to forget about Harding is that, yes, she was a fierce competitor, a former two-time Olympian, and the first American woman to successfully land the seemingly impossible triple axel in competition and only the second to do so in history.  Unfortunately and rather pathetically, none of that mattered in the public eye, seeing as Harding's name became synonymous with scandal and served as a long running joke for late night talk show comedians for years. 

I, TONYA covers the Kerrigan attack, but it also traverses through Harding's rough and abusive upbringing, her arduous rise up the ladder in her sport, and her fragile relationship with her husband that ended up irreparably dooming her career.  It would have been easy for this biopic to achieve an odious level of a sleazy and sensationalized TV movie of the week, but under the rock solid and deeply assured hands of director Craig Gillespie (whom previously showed how adept he was at handling ultra tricky material in LARS AND THE REAL GIRL), I, TONYA seems to walk this extremely delicate line between mocking its subject (and the - for lack of a better descriptor - white trash morons she surrounded herself with) and trying to humanize this troubled woman to gain an understanding of what makes her tick.  I, TONYA never places Harding on a pedestal of misunderstood hero worship (she was no likeable angel), but Gillespie asks viewers to sympathize with her as a tortured young woman whose unhealthy relationships with her mother and husband helped precipitate her downward spiral into a headline grabbing caricature.  If anything, I, TONYA emerges as a compelling character study on top of being pointed satire and commentary on working class grief, athletic ambition run amok, and, well, dumb people perpetrating unpardonably dumb crimes. 

 

 

Similar in approach to Gus Vant Sant's underrated TO DIE FOR (that ironically was released around the same time as the events of this movie), Gillespie here chronicles the rise and fall of his character using a mockumentary style that's interlaced with recreations of key incidents in Harding's life, complete with multiple fourth wall breaking characters.  We hear from a wide variety of people that were closest to her and all with bewilderingly contradictory perspectives and testimonies.  The headstrong energy of I, TONYA is infectious, and Gillepsie - with a fearless tenacity of spirit - hurtles viewers through the most troubling and jaw dropping moments from Harding's childhood (featuring one of the most coarse and monstrously cruel mothers in movie history) up to her early successes in figure skating and finally to her cursed marriage to her mentally unraveled husband that acted as a catalyst to the lurid Kerrigan attack.  Throughout all of this we gain a startling new impression of Harding as a victim of circumstance and being surrounded by the absolutely wrong kind of people in life.  Wisely, and as already mentioned, Harding isn't presented as saintly here, but the film will make you reconsider her as a deeply flawed, lonely, and attention and affection starved human being that got royally dealt a raw hand in life.  And the fact that Gillespie captures all of this by meticulously blending uproarious comedy and dramatic pathos is to his and the film's credit. 

One of the central relationships highlighted in the film is between Tonya (played though various stages of her life by a chameleon-like Margo Robbie) and her toxically dislikeable mother, LaVona (played in a fire and brimstone performance of pure spitefulness by Alison Janney), who serves more as an F-bomb threatening coach to the very young Tonya than as a nurturing and loving maternal figure.  LaVona, in her own twisted and demented way, feels that she's cultivating a winning attitude in daughter, but the verbal and physical abuse she wages on her is hard to behold at times.  I, TONYA then flashes forward to her early skating successes, not to mention her personally wounding defeats, all while she's courted by the man that would prove to bring about her end as a skater, Jeff Gillooly (a spectacularly chilling Sebastian Stan), whose possessive nature around her did her no favors.  As the 1994 Olympics approach and Harding, more desperate than ever to achieve a gold medal, worries about her chances, Jeff and his hilariously delusion BFF - and Tonya bodyguard - Shawn Eckhardt (an entertainingly idiotic and delusion Paul Walter Hauser), decides to "mastermind" (sarcastic quotation marks on purpose) a plot to ensure that Tonya's rival in Kerrigan never becomes an issue to her again.  "The Incident," by Shawn's own self-congratulatory label, goes down...and not well...and the rest is history. 

One thing really stuck out for me while watching I, TONYA: There's this unmistakable aura of working class dread and paranoia that permeates Harding and her ravenous quest to become the best in her sport.  Coming from a rather socio-economically impoverished family in the worst areas of Portland, Oregon - and also being the offspring of an infamously vulgar and unsophisticated mother - Harding was never fully embraced by the skating community, or by judges for that matter.  Despite a ruthlessly determined work ethic and on-ice routines that should have netted her high scores, judges would frequently grade her lower, and not out of lack of talent, but rather because her grungy attitude and sometimes flippantly anti-social behavior were not the "right stuff" of figure skating ice queens and champions.   You gain a sense that Harding had to battle and persevere through more than the average figure skater to achieve accolades from her peers.  Of course, this hardly absolves her from her obvious criminal indiscretions and unethical choices,  but there's an intriguing attempt here by Gillespie to flesh out Harding beyond the narrow viewfinder that the tabloid media presented back in the the day.  I, TONYA has a thematic undercurrent of middle America class-consciousness that's often not portrayed in rousing and inspirational sports biopics: Gillespie is daring to try something different here that bucks easily definable genre conventions. 

Again, though, the Tonya Harding in I, TONYA is no hero in her own narrative.  That's for sure.  She's shown as being just as uncultivated, hellishly vulgar and aggressive minded to those around her (this film more than earns its R rating).  Yet, she is someone darker, more tormented, and psychologically layered that serves the narrative well into explaining her emotional fragility.  And you do feel sorry for her, despite the fact that she commits unsympathetic deeds.  There's more to her than tabloid fodder, and I, TONYA does an eerily accurate job of showcasing how seedy journalism of this era fed into the public's appetite for reality TV well before the term was even ubiquitous in the industry.   As Robbie's Harding plain-spokenly tells the audience during one of her many monologues, the media adores their heroes and villains in equal measure: "They want someone to love, they want someone to hate.  I was loved for a minute, then I was hated. Then I was just a punch line."   

Robbie is an actress - as frequently mentioned in my past reviews - that's so staggeringly gorgeous that she often gets overlooked for how richly varied her film choices and performances are.  Having the Herculean task of playing Harding from the age of 15 to middle age adulthood, the former Oscar nominee gives a tour de force performance that not only captures Harding's tough talking swagger, but also her buried anxieties, low sense of self-worth, and suffocating vulnerability.  More importantly, Robbie never begs for our sympathy for her character; it's a richly textured warts and all piece of acting that thanklessly doesn't transform Harding into a grotesque cartoon character.  Allison Janney rounds off Robbie's bravura turn with her own freakish force of nature level of immersion in her role as Harding's horrifyingly intimidating chain smoking and insult spewing mother.  LaVona is pure evil in this film, but Janney evokes hidden subtleties in her performance that hints at a sad and conflicted being lurking way beneath this monster's surface.   Sebastian Stan fills out this film's triumphant triple acting threat: He has arguably the toughest challenge of showing Jeff's journey from being an easy going and simple minded buffoon and into a perverted and unsettling crook that feels ownership over Tonya and her destiny. 

All in all, once this film ensnares you and lures you into its eccentrically pulpy vortex it's nearly impossible to pull away.  Gillespie and company deserve top marks for keeping this film's momentum cruising along at a juggernaut's pace on top of using some decent computer trickery on a relative low budget to make Robbie credibly appear like she's actually performing Harding's insanely difficult triple axel on the ice.  Most crucially, Gillespie isn't interested in making I, TONYA a paint-by numbers biopic carved from the same troupes and formulas of similar films that have come before it.  He finds the limitless absurdity and humor in Harding's uphill battle in figure skating and dealing with the scandal that broke her, but he rarely falters at losing sight of how Harding, in her own way, is a tragic figure.  I, TONYA has an heartfelt emotional resonance peppered into its pure rock and roll energy and renegade edge, and its strange and intoxicating cocktail of sports drama and black comedy crime caper makes it such a dementedly enjoyable ride.  

One last thing: Some critics have stated that Gillespie's film forgets Kerrigan as the true victim amidst the madness perpetrated on here in his narrative, which is a tad unfair.  I, TONYA is not Kerrigan's story; it's Tonya Harding's story.  Plus, Harding is not painted in broad strokes.  For as morally wrong as it was that Kerrigan was brutally attacked (as well as insipidly plotted and covered up, for that matter) I, TONYA reveals that Harding perhaps dealt with more lemons being served up to her in life than we were all aware of beforehand. 

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