Review: I, Tonya ★★★

by Michael Henley

I, Tonya is a marriage between energetic black comedy and the standard hagiographical outlines of a biopic. At the center of it is a blisteringly good performance by Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, the American figure skater who found herself a prime suspect in what ended up being the second-most famous celebrity crime case of 1994. Harding, who may or may not have been involved in the planning of an ultimately sloppy attack on competitor skater Nancy Kerrigan, is a juicy target for storytelling, and Robbie, while looking not much like the real Harding, successfully embodies all of her spunk, her talent, and her fierce anger. What hurts the movie, just a little, is that it seems to promise the probity of a character study, but just when we have questions it peddles a few safe answers.

“Nothing’s ever your fault,” sneers her mother, LaVona (a caustic and nasty Allison Janney) and I feel like the movie might have been more interesting if it hadn’t quite so earnestly agreed with that sentiment. To be sure, Tonya was a victim of some awful circumstances, and her mother is the last person we should turn to for insight here. She’s played by Janney as casually abusive, potty-mouthed, chainsmoking and cruel, all the willing to bully her daughter into greatness.  During one practice, her mother bars her from the bathroom, and little Tonya ends up piddling and crying all over the ice.

The Hardings are lower-class, and every cent of LaVona’s waitressing cash goes towards her daughter’s dreams of ice skating. As Tonya’s grows, her mother’s attacks (verbal and physical) become more vicious, more personal, and more toxic. We see how abuse is as an omnipresent channel for white trash anger; note how slickly Tonya slips out of her homelife and into an abusive marriage to hapless Jeff Gillolly (Sebastian Stan, very good). “Being hit to me was an everyday occurance,” she sniffs at one point. “Nancy Kerrigan gets hit once and it’s a news story.” It’s a statement as revealing as it is painfully sad.

And as Nationals and the Olympics come calling for Tonya, there’s a definitely theme of how the odds are stacked against the lower classes, and how unfair it can be to judge a sport with the outdated and inconsistent standards of a beauty pageant. “We judge on presentation,” one panelist snarks; tough to hear when a skater can’t afford to do anything but sew her own costumes.

Tonya is a fantastically talented skater (her claim to fame is an unprecedented triple axel move, which she then makes her meal ticket to the big time). But throughout her career there was a touch of Salieri to her in a group of Mozarts. She was the one who wanted it too much, who looked like she was trying too hard. The heartbreak of trying your best at something you love and still being considered second-rate is bitter coffee, to be sure. She lacked the grace to make it look as easy as someone like Kerrigan, who came across as an ice princess in every way. (And then when she seemed alternately pathetic and ungrateful and a little too much of an above-it-all princess, the American public turned on Kerrigan, too.)

But what about Nancy Kerrigan? Here’s where the movie shifts focus to Gillolly (now well into his up-and-down marriage to Tonya) and his loser friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who mastermind a cockamamie plan to rattle Nancy through death threats. Shawn, a pudgy dreamer who claims he’s a spycraft and counterintelligence expert, ends up quietly ok’ing a plan to mutate this effort into an actual assault carried out by inept thugs, much to Jeff’s wide-eyed horror. Their scenes together, as Shawn gleefully suggests that they’ve committed the perfect crime, while Jeff succumbs to shock and smartly decides that no they have not, is brilliant black comedy.

But it’s also very straightforward. The movie plays with unreliable narrators via a TV-interview framing device and fourth-wall breaks (“I never did this,” Tonya says to the camera at one point, before pumping a shotgun and chasing Jeff across their property), but on the points of the crime the movie sticks to one version of events. This is entertaining and has propulsive momentum, to be sure, but it also feels like it’s trying to scrub clean the legacy of Tonya Harding through omission.

Did Harding have a hand in this? Maybe, maybe not. She was clearly okay with the death threat plan, though, which is why when the investigation closes and she’s forced to resign from the figure skating association in disgrace, her pleas that she doesn’t know what else to do are sad and sympathetic, but it’s hard to feel too sorry for her, and the more the movie bloviates in its final half hour, it starts to feel more and more like it’s sidestepping the truth or making excuses.

What was her relationship to Nancy? (They shared hotel rooms and Tonya claims they were friends, but Robbie’s delivery of that indicates she’s maybe hiding something.) Was it just rotten luck that someone as angry and defiant as Tonya Harding got entangled in an assault plot? How did she feel about what happened? There are flashes of answers here, but not quite enough to paint a complete picture. It seems uncomfortable with questioning her, just a little. Robbie has to do most of the heavy lifting that the script won’t, and she does, never more so than in a scene where, prior to her final performance (the infamous shoelace-snapping moment) she puts on her makeup as she walls back tears and rage. Never for a moment in her life was it nothing less than hard to be Tonya Harding.

The direction, by Craig Gillespie, is sardonic and spirited; he channels a little Scorsese in the way he plays with chronology and perspective, and there’s some Coen Brothers as well in the way the movie revels into the incompetence of the stooges and its depiction of overachieving Americana underbelly (Jeff and Shawn’s meetings always happen either in dead-eyed strip clubs or, in their final scene, a chintzy Chinese restaurant). The film’s humor, consistently ironic and funny, has the wild spark of events that are so unbelievable they probably really happened (like Jeff, when his relationship with Tonya is at an ebb, road tripping for a day with Shawn simply so he can yell at her from the bleachers). I could have done with a fewer insufferably-on-the-nose needledrops on the soundtrack, but, hey, that’s me.

Leaving I, Tonya, I was struck by how funny the movie is on the surface it is and yet how sad it is underneath, not just as a  recollection of a horrific home life and abbreviated sports career, but as an indictment of press and the American collective consciousness, how vicious we can be to public figures (Bobby Cannavale has a small role as a journalist for the tabloid show Hard Copy, which ended up prefiguring our taste for trash news, coming “coincidentally” at the dawn of twenty-four-hour news cycles). It’s weird to feel nostalgic during such a bleak and uncompromising movie as I, Tonya, because I did, because it’s about a time when trash celebrity was new, and that the celebrities in question still had to be good at something to earn their spot on TV in the first place.