“I was loved for a moment. Then I was hated. Then I was a punch line.”
The precursor to the 24-hour news cycle that dominated so many televisions, Tonya Harding’s story was the laughingstock of U.S. households before they turned away to be shocked by O.J. Simpson. Harding never got to tell her side of the story for all those years. Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya avoids the narrative of traditional biographical pictures by introducing the audience to Margot Robbie’s Tonya, and her mother (played by the reliably entertaining Allison Janney) directly.
Blending the caustic comedy of a Coen Bros. film with the brutal upbringing that Harding dealt with, it would be very easy to dismiss I, Tonya as another “gawking at the freaks” film, but at the center of the film is a human being. One who falls prey to the same abuse and tabloidism that defines modern celebrity. America loves an underdog is the refrain that we are sold, but when one self-described Oregon redneck tries to better herself, well, that just won’t make it in the world of competitive ice skating. A shame considering that being on the ice is the only time that Tonya is at peace.
A flaw that many biographical films cannot overcome is that the passion of a protagonist is never treated with the enthusiasm that the person holds. Gillespie’s Steadicam work in the rink captures a sense of elation that can’t be put into words. After years of watching Olympic ice skating, the dynamic nature of the sport finally makes sense. When Tonya finally lands that triple axle, it feels like the miracle that it ought to. That Robbie is believable skating, along with some digital assistance, makes it possible for I, Tonya to take pleasure in her passion.
Though Tonya’s wizardry in the rink isn’t what defines her arc. Unfortunately, it’s her traumatic relationships. Abuse defines both of her supposed supporters, but somehow she drags herself–with her critics in tow– to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. LoVana (Janney) borders on the sadistic side of screen moms. She’s a subscriber to the theory that one has to be abusive and crazy to draw out greatness. Not a moment’s thought is given to the fact that Tonya is a child. Tonya’s relationship with eventual husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) doesn’t fare much better. Gillooly may not have stupid written on his forehead, but it’s written on his lip with that mustache. And for every perceived slight to his intelligence or masculinity, Tonya gets beaten. These portions of the film really lean into an impression of 80s Martin Scorsese, fueled by paranoia, frenetic pacing, and near-constant needle drops. The problem with their usage here is that audiences are playing “what’s that song” when they should be glued to Robbie’s outstanding performance.
Margot Robbie could have very easily relied on the caricature that exists of Harding, but she strives to find the person beneath the punchline. The result of which means viewers are caught with a laugh in their throat when the comedy turns back into devastation. The Kerrigan incident is a big drawing point, but this is a spotlight on the insidious nature of domestic abuse. Eyes desperate to avoid being seen straight on, Tonya avoids looking directly into the camera. When she finally does look the audience squarely in the soul tell them “You were all my attackers too,” it lands like a gut punch. After laughing at the bizarreness of Janney, Stan, and Paul Walter Hauser’s parts, viewers certainly stop and think about how they’ve been interpreting the previous hour.
I, Tonya will draw comparisons to Wolf of Wall Street for the inclusion of Margot Robbie and the similar narrative/editing decisions, but the true link lies in how both films draw back the curtain at the end. Wolf of Wall Street ends with Leonardo DiCaprio’s eponymous salesman hoodwinking a new generation of lower-middle-class citizens into accepting his predatory offers. Craig Gillespie closes on Tonya, after having to fend off abuse for years, boxing for publicity and money. People are paying to watch her take a beating. If that metaphor doesn’t strike into the black, obsidian heart of how the public devours personalities, I don’t know what will.