by Ken Bakely
DISCLAIMER: This review references real life events which, in the context of this film, may be considered spoilers.
Margot Robbie is a force of nature in Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, spitting out densely packed dialogue, nailing acidic stares, and swirling around on the ice in well-staged skating scenes. As Tonya Harding, she works to further the idea of the ostracized figure as a victim of larger entities: domestic abuse, a sensationalist news media, and the viciousness of the poverty and disadvantage that marked her upbringing. The film – part mockumentary, part reenactment, and always acerbic – seeks not only to dispel the most outrageous myths surrounding Harding’s involvement in the 1994 attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), but self-deprecatingly further an argument that while it does not entirely know what happened, neither do you. This is seen in the first title card, which reads “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” In theory, it’s a tantalizing deconstruction. Robbie is up for the challenge.
However, the movie around her is not. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to understand what its lead actress is doing. Steven Rogers’ script is a flatly dark comedy on several levels, all of which feel misplaced and out of tune with the others. There is the obvious: how it juxtaposes contradicting stories in the intercut talking head interviews between Harding and ex-husband Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and has the characters within the film itself dispute allegations in real-time (one scene sees Jeff fleeing a shotgun-wielding Tonya; the latter turns to us and claims this event never happened.) Or consider the moment when Tonya’s mother, Lavona (Allison Janney), one of the most villainous matriarchs to hit American theater screens this side of Mommie Dearest, throws a knife into her daughter’s arm after a heated dinner table argument. The movie cuts to the talking head Lavona, who utters the hilarious understatement, “Oh, please! Show me a family that doesn’t have its ups and downs!”
Occasions like these are played for laughs, and they are often funny. Yet all this does is widen the chasm between the disparate parts of the film. It’s a restless one, alright – with its frantic cuts and rapidfire conversations, I, Tonya operates breathlessly. When the movie pivots to the disputed events surrounding the Kerrigan assault, another shift occurs, ramming the movie into a makeshift caper farce. Comically inept henchmen, hired and fired by Gillooly from one minute to the next, go from pondering how to write unserious death threats to the competing skater, to the instant when baton-meets-knee. Gillespie treats ringleader Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), Tonya’s lumbering bodyguard, as a glorified sketch character – many of his scenes feature him claiming to be a counterterrorism expert, all while shoveling fried food into his mouth. Hauser’s performance is entertaining, but he’s stepped out of a different movie: a high-stakes, reality-inspired comedy of errors and misunderstandings.
Yet when we come back to Robbie’s Tonya, we’re reminded of the tragedy that underscores this story. Although it was her abusive mother who pushed her to pursue skating, the sport was her escape, both from her parent and, later on, her equally abusive husband. It was the window to a future that would lift her from a traumatic past and give her the life she always dreamed of. When she becomes a public pariah, and when a judge bans her from professional ice skating forever, it’s heartbreaking. We acknowledge that Tonya never acted as a saint, but we’re gutted all the same. Robbie’s performance in the courtroom scene is wrenching – she tearfully, though uselessly, begs for jail time instead. Comedy is the furthest thing from our minds in this moment. The first American woman to land a triple axel has been whipped into a media punchline, and regardless of to what degree it was her fault, it’s hard not to become absorbed in how avoidable this whole mess was.
But Gillespie manages just that. He cuts to a TV playing a David Letterman joke about the incident, and then blows forward ten years, with a final monologue played over a reenactment of Tonya’s boxing career. I, Tonya can’t imagine a world without glibness. Asides and popping needle drops are part of its structure, but not a part of what the solid performances from Robbie, Janney, and Stan are here to do. This is a movie that depicts a retrospective Tonya recalling that Jeff was “the first guy [she] ever loved…” before smashing to an in-plot scene where Jeff slams her head into a mirror, breaking the glass. Tonya looks to the camera and finishes the sentence – “…but he beat the living hell out of me.” Among rug-pulls within single lines of dialogue, it’s hard to imagine one more brutal than this. But with the way it’s executed, the movie treats it like a joke. It treats almost everything like a joke, relieved by a cutaway or a snide remark. When Tonya laments how she became a disposable gag for a preening world, the film understands her for all the wrong reasons.