“I, Tonya” tells the story you never heard before, about the story you’ve already heard before. Just as “O.J.: Made In America” and “American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson” proved there was plenty of unexplored territory to cinematically explore in that notorious saga, this film opens with the admission that its based on actual, “irony free, wildly contradictory” interviews with everyone involved. And they have a lot to say. The result is a goldmine of riches that you really couldn’t make up (though perhaps screenwriter Steven Rogers embellished his transcripts just a bit). The wealth of information inspires fiery performances, the best work of director Craig Gillespie’s career, and a terrifically entertaining picture that’s the “Goodfellas” of figure skating, mixed with a dash of Coen Brothers darkness and absurdity, and a splash of David O. Russell’s ability to capture family dysfunction with intimate immediacy.
“It wasn’t my fault” is a phrase you’ll hear more than once in “I, Tonya” as Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) presents her side of the story, one where she’s largely played as the villain in the media’s renderings of what’s referred to as “The Incident.” But before we get to that fateful day when a crowbar met Nancy Kerrigan’s knee and made headlines around the world, we go back to the beginning of the story, told in flashback, from interviews from the present day characters, who comment on the events as they unfold. It’s a narrative device that might not work, but the tale and players involved are so uniquely wild and weird, you quickly forget how the picture is structured. And while the Rashomon-effect of the stories doesn’t always line up, depending on who’s doing the telling, almost everyone can agree that Tonya never had it easy.
When LaVona (Allison Janney) brings her young daughter to the rink for figure skating lessons, she won’t take no for an answer. Part of the reason is because she wants the kid out of the house for a couple of hours, but she also recognizes that there’s some real talent beneath Tonya’s excited exterior. A lousy, physically and emotionally abusive mother, LaVona takes as much as credit as she can for giving all her meager earnings over to Tonya’s training, with coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) guiding the skater for most of her career. But no matter how much Tonya achieves it’s never enough for LaVona, who makes parenting into a debt that can never be repaid. Tonya endures and excels, and one day she meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and they fall fast in love. And while that’s where everything changes for Tonya in her public life, behind closed doors, things stay the same as Jeff is no better than LaVona; a closed fist and sharp tongue ready to explode at any moment.
However, Tonya is not one to play the victim, and while she ably defends herself from those closest to her, the unfairness of the skating world arguably hurts her more than whatever LaVona and Jeff dish out. A sport that’s as equally focused on exterior presentation as sporting skill, Tonya is rough around the edges, to put it kindly, making her a continual outsider to the sport. Her rock ’n roll music choices for her routines are abrasive, her behavior even moreso, while her working class background means she has to hand-stitch her skating outfits, which pale in comparison to the fine pieces her colleagues can afford to buy. However, she has two secret weapons: endless ambition, and the skill to do what no other female American figure skater has done — a triple axel. All of these ingredients combine into a perfect storm that eventually leads to “The Incident.”
Despite the darker edges, “I, Tonya” embraces the surreality of the story and winningly plays it mostly for comedy, with dips into drama, while crucially never mocking the central players (except for their bad or mind-boggling actions, and these mostly fall to the hoods involved in knee-capping Kerrigan). It’s a balance that’s harder to pull off than it looks, but also as easy to admire when it’s done this well. Gillespie not only handles the cross-cutting between timelines with ease, but also the moments punctuated by fourth-wall breaking. “I, Tonya” even manages a bit of self-commentary, with LaVona quipping somewhere in the second act about her storyline disappearing from the movie. Gillespie has simply never been better, but some of the credit is also due to cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (“Bullhead,” “Triple 9”) who brings a beautifully roving camera that both gracefully captures Tonya’s routines, while standing as a harsh witness to her domestic battles, in arguments that often move from room to room.
However, standing in the center of it all is Margot Robbie, whose star has been rising thanks to “The Wolf Of Wall Street” and “Suicide Squad,” movies that traded on her talent and sex appeal. But “I, Tonya” solidifies the actress as the real deal, and not just because she’s stripped of her usual glamor. She simply gives a knockout turn as Tonya, perfectly encapsulating the larger than life personality that hides a very sensitive soul inside that brittle shell. Janney is also outstanding as the ruthless LaVona, Stan is impressive as the bipolar and destructive Jeff, with Paul Walter Hauser breaking out as his conspiracy minded, delusional, yet strangely loyal friend Shawn. Last but not least is the over-tanned, wild-haired Bobby Cannavale perfectly playing a slimy, “Hard Copy” reporter who rightly points out that it doesn’t take long for the mainstream press to follow the tabloid’s outrageous methods in covering Harding as the 24-hour news cycle took shape in the early ‘90s.
“I, Tonya” makes a strong case that Tonya Harding never received a fair shake, and was unduly punished for events that were outside of her control or knowledge (apparently, anyway). The film perhaps tips a bit too far when Tonya breaks the fourth wall to accuse the audience of being participants in her public stoning. For all the blame she puts on others, Tonya never quite acknowledges that at some level, she did have an intention to mess with her teammate. An intention that spiraled out of control and wound up escalating into something unimaginable. Yet, this is also what we’re also left to consider at the end of “I, Tonya” — where her responsibility ends, and where the public accountability begins, particularly in terms of how quickly we establish heroes and villains for any given news narrative. The film may be called “I, Tonya” but perhaps on some level, we’re all complicit in Tonya’s story skating away at the first sign of broken ice. [A-]
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