Every winter, we’re treated to a parade of bio-pics about famous faces who made a mark on American culture. You know, your Abraham Lincolns and so forth. Tonya Harding wasn’t exactly an obvious choice to be added to the pantheon of award bait bios. Her legacy is a pop culture punchline at best, and that’s exactly why ‘I, Tonya’ is such a fun, fascinating, and bizarre little movie.
Gleefully self-aware and revisionist, the movie knows that you’re buying a ticket to laugh at that figure skater who was responsible for another figure skater getting bopped on the knee. It lets you. Then you learn about the actual human involved and find out all the pains she went through to get into that ridiculous situation, and how it crushed the few joys in her hard luck life. It’s still kind of funny after all that, just in a different way. More of a “Laugh because the other options are too painful” kinda way.
The film cannily presents Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a victim in her own story. How? Well, a number of ways. The first is the cycle of abuse that she endured since she was a child. Her father abandoned her at a young age, while her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney, chewing through her scenery like a deadpan master), stopped chainsmoking only to tear her daughter down with one of many swear-ridden insults. Tonya’s only escape from her mother was an equally abusive boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, proving he’s a far better actor than his endlessly brooding Winter Solider role allows). He was less foul-mouthed in his abuse, more of a gaslighter with a violent streak. Not a pretty picture, but it’s another trap that Harding fell into and would prove to be her downfall.
There’s another way in which the star of ‘I, Tonya’ was a victim, this one comprising a primary theme of the film. She was on the white trash downside of economic hardship. The figure skating world never wanted to accept the dirty-mouthed prodigy from the wrong side of the tracks who made her own uniforms and skated to ZZ Top. They thought she was a black eye on the sport and likely would have pushed her out were it not for the fact that Harding was the best figure skater in the world at one point (the first to ever land a triple axel, no less). Of course, the stuck-up figure skating establishment eventually found a way to shun Tonya, through yet another means of victimhood. Harding was most infamously the victim of tabloid villain worship after the Nancy Kerrigan incident.
The film presents Tonya as barely being involved with the plot to bash in the knee of her competitor. That was yet another helpful addition to Tonya’s life from her deadbeat abusive husband. When the tabloids got hold of the story, they turned Harding into the evil queen of figure skating, and she had no way to defend herself. Eventually, it cost her career, and the figure skating powers were thrilled.
That’s obviously a lot of thematic and narrative ground for ‘I, Tonya’ to cover. To cram it all in, underrated journeyman director Craig Gillespie (‘Lars and the Real Girl’, the ‘Fright Night’ remake) opts for the ‘Goodfellas’ approach. Cameras whiz through scenes, characters compete for voiceover control, the fourth wall is regularly broken, tragedy is played as dark comedy until it’s too dark to bear, and the soundtrack is filled with junk pop hits of the ’80s and ’90s. The film never slows down for a minute and the train wreck tale is all the more resonant and entertaining for it.
Gillespie clearly sides with Tonya Harding in this story. (Amusingly Nancy Kerrigan only appears once during the infamous “Whyyyy?!” moment heard ’round the world. It’s a good gag and a better choice for narrative consistency.) However, the movie’s structure also takes on a ‘Rashomon’ approach. Based on actual interviews with the major players in the story (an end credits montage proves this material was frighteningly accurate, especially the most absurd moments), everyone gets a voice and no one’s story quite lines up. The tale is populated by narcissists who all want to cast themselves as the star. Tonya emerges as the most reliable narrator because she has nothing to lose by sharing the truth.
Margot Robbie disappears into the trash culture icon, adopting a nasty accent, mannish mannerisms, and a delightful “Who gives a fuck?” attitude. It’s a remarkable performance that proves how good she is, even nailing the skating scenes when CGI face replacement isn’t required. She finds a beating heart in a punchline and tragedy at the heart of a delirious dark comedy. Her incredible performance grounds the often ridiculous film.
Everyone else in the cast play their roles to more cartoonish excess. It’s hard not to. The story is so insane that no one would believe it were it fictional, especially during the dingbat heist comedy of the second half. Janney commands through her goofy charms, Stan is subtle until he frighteningly explodes. Everyone fits a role, and Gillespie barrels through all the layers of social commentary and satire and crime comedy and bio-pic-ing and tragedy at a relentless pace. The movie feels like an assault at times, and could be dismissed as needlessly excessive were it not for the fact that’s the point. Maybe some of the jokes are in bad taste, the stylistic ‘Goodfellas’ plagiarism can be distracting, and the script often loses track of which point it’s trying to make, but the fact that such a rich movie and fantastic performance came out of the Tonya Harding story at all can’t be considered anything but a pleasant surprise.
‘I, Tonya’ is one of the best and most ambitious movies of the year, crammed into a bad taste comedy package that makes it go down smoothly through laughs that hurt. Not everyone will appreciate what the folks behind the film accomplished, but those that do will wonder where the hell this movie has been for the last twenty years.