I, Tonya (2017)
Opening with a conflictory disclaimer that reads, ‘based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gilloolly,’ director Craig Gillespie, Lars and the Real Girl (2007), serves up a different type of biopic with I, Tonya, the movie, which looks at the rise and fall of disgraced American figure skater Tonya Harding, employing an outrageously unconventional structure, one that toys with the customary genre tropes of Hollywood biography films.
Using faux interviews as a framing device, the narrative is presented through the eyes of multiple individuals, each giving their own spin on the infamous Tonya Harding account, leaving audiences to elect (or separate) fact from fiction, events playing out like an amalgamation of both. We have confessionals with ice-skating’s greatest villain, Tonya Harding (an outstanding Margot Robbie), along with her nightmare of a stage mom LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), wife-beater ex-husband Jeff Gilloolly (Sebastian Stan), pea-brained bodyguard/ self-proclaimed counter terrorist expert Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), and oily Hard Copy producer Martin Maddox (a composite character played by a Jersey-tanned Bobby Cannavale).
Born and raised on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks in Portland, Oregon, Tonya Harding, while clearly talented on ice, always struggled to be accepted by the snooty U.S. skating committee. You see, even as a young child (played by a convincing Mckenna Grace), the trashy, frizzy-haired Tonya — who’d regularly turn up to contests dressed in gaudy homemade outfits — didn’t quite fit the pristine image of elegance and grace that the skating community wanted to exude, despite her extraordinary ability as an athlete, the former Olympian one of only eight women (to this very day) able to cleanly land a triple axel in competition.
Via the hypnotic sounds of Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman,’ moviegoers are quickly introduced to Tonya’s devilish chain-smoking mother LaVona, who, abusing her daughter physically, mentally and verbally, fuels her dreams and aspirations of becoming a world championship Olympic medalist, LaVona bullying her athletically gifted child into believing that there are no friends in her chosen profession, only enemies. And what of her father, who taught Tonya how to hunt rabbits as a young’un? Well, he divorced his wife and moved to Idaho, leaving his little girl alone with her pitiless mother.
Despite strong objections from all who knew her, Tonya tied the knot in March of 1990, marrying the equally abusive Jeff Gilloolly (at age 19), the film tracking the pair’s up-and-down, train wreck of marriage; we see glimpses of passion, bursts of domestic violence and the round-the-clock squabbling. And then there’s the ‘fu*king incident,’ which Robbie reminds us is what we’ve all (really) come to see. After a hopeful career start at the 1991 U.S. Nationals — a victory that’s toasted with a big f-you to the judges — Tonya’s Olympic aspirations are permanently put on ice after her redneck ex-husband and his inept childhood bud, Eckardt, hatch an ill-conceived scheme to ‘whack’ the opposition, the duo intervening in Harding’s affairs: their target, ‘privileged’ competitor Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), the wholesome all-American gal the skating gatekeepers sought after as their representative.
Documenting the tumultuous media frenzy that followed — Tonya going from talented sportswoman to shameful tabloid princess overnight — screenwriter Steven Rogers, Love the Coopers (2015), takes viewers through the notorious scandal, the most notable in sports history, Tonya’s achievements tarnished (the incident earning her a lifetime ban from competitive skating) due to her association with the morons who attacked Kerrigan on the night of January 6th 1994, when an unknown assailant broke the Olympic-hopeful’s leg with a baton. Struck during a practice session held at Detroit’s Cobo Arena, Kerrigan’s knee was immediately shattered, this ‘complication’ almost preventing her from taking part in the Winter Olympics (held in Lillehammer), which, at the time, was only three short months away.
Intense, kinetic and fiercely irreverent, what really separates I, Tonya from the crowd of recent biopics is its representation of the ill-reputed Harding, who, let’s face it, had become something of a punchline, the record-breaking underdog portrayed as a complicated and tragic figure, one we can kinda-sorta emphasize with. On top of this, we’re given varying perceptions of truth, the film’s title — a scoffing riff on the ‘I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ testimony — alluding to the unreliable nature of our fickle narrators; some even go so far as to interrupt proceedings just to nullify or debunk someone else’s point of view, Tonya, who’s constantly trying to salvage her own reputation, a major culprit. Basically, nothing anyone says is to be taken at face value — an uncomfortable Gilloolly, for example, professes to the camera, ‘I never hit [Tonnie], that’s not me, I’m actually a pretty meek guy,’ right after we see him brutally smack his hapless wife. Who are we to believe or, better yet, what are we to accept as true?
This he-said, she-said element extends into the film’s make-up, almost coursing through its DNA, Gillespie choosing to have characters, at times, break the fourth wall — for instance, a shot-gun-wielding Tonya turns to the lens and states, ‘This is bullshit. I never did this,’ as she re-loads her firearm to let off a second round, aiming at her scurrying husband’s head. Now, this does two things; it helps our on-screen storytellers, each trying to ‘challenge’ the narrative or persuade audiences into believing their side of the story, and it aids in softening the heavier/ darker scenes, the entire picture underscored by a cynical, almost self-mocking tone — thankfully, the bursts of unorthodox comedy never downplay any of the drama. With that said, the moments in which Tonya’s volatile hubby thrashes and bashes his ‘imprisoned’ wife, whose self-worth (over countless years) had been beaten down by her mother’s endless putdowns, may be difficult for those more sensitive viewers stomach.
Exploring themes of social class and the making/ breaking of a celebrity (before the rise of reality TV), Rogers’ screenplay is deeply layered, the picture populated with flawed and complex characters, all of whom are afraid to take responsibility for their wrongdoings, each shifting the blame onto someone else. Australia’s Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad (2016), gives a career-defining turn, disappearing into the unflattering role of the controversial Tonya Harding, the stunning 27-year-old exhibiting a range of emotions in this raw and unvarnished portrayal. Exposing Harding’s innate vulnerability, Robbie paints an honest portrait of a woman scared for her safety, whose simmering jealousy, take-no-shit attitude and constant violation drive her to do questionable things — was she a mere victim of circumstance or a master manipulator? There are no concrete answers here. Exploding with sincerity and despair, a scene in which Robbie’s Tonya stands before a mirror, applying kitschy makeup to her blubbery face as she attempts a number of delirious smiles, is likely to be one of the most moving and confronting scenes you’ll see this year, the twentysomething sports-star on the verge of securing her lifelong dream just as her entire world comes crashing down around her. Give this woman an Oscar already!
Sebastian Stan, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), does wonders with the role of Jeff Gilloolly, who (just like our anti-hero) could have easily been vilified, Tonya’s unstable former husband rendered as a man unable to express emotion, inflicting hurt onto others as a dangerous alternative, this aggression becoming an extension of his being. Allison Janney, The Help (2011), totally owns the part of Tonya’s venomous, vindictive mother LaVona, while relative newcomer Paul Walter Hauser is deliriously manic as doofus Shawn, Tonya’s pathetic self-appointed muscle who still resides in his mom’s basement. And let’s not shun the overlooked Julianne Nicholson, Black Mass (2015), who gives it her all as Diane Rawlinson, Tonya’s exasperated, long-suffering coach. Lastly, Bobby Cannavale, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), injects some much-needed levity as greasy Hard Copy reporter Martin Maddox.
Visually, I, Tonya goes for the gold and scores! The ice-skating sequences alone are worth the price of admission, these — a mix of digital artistry, camera trickery and the real-deal (actual skating) — by far the best of their kind. The flick is further exalted by the gritty soap opera aesthetic and grungy cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis, Triple 9 (2016), who channels the spirit and soul of the pop-culture decade; the whole thing looks and feels like trashy ’90s TV — characters are even clad in hideous flannel. Excellently edited by Tatiana S. Riegel, The Finest Hours (2016), the hyper-charged pacing goes hand-in-hand with the batshit crazy capers, Gillespie lightening the often-bleak mood with the on-the-nose needle-drops, which blazingly punctuate the action, the film containing a jukebox of power-ballads from the ’70s and ’80s (with artists such as Foreigner, Supertramp, Dire Straits, Heart and Chicago) — this is, hands down, the best movie soundtrack since James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), both of which (surprisingly) feature Fleetwood Mac’s definitive classic ‘The Chain.’
A stranger-than-fiction story ripped straight from the headlines — some of this stuff, you just can’t make up — I, Tonya packs one helluva punch; it’s edgy, horrific and humorous, sometimes all at the same time. Elevated by top-notch performances and superb technical proficiency, I, Tonya is a bitingly gripping entertainer, and an enthralling look back at one of the most talked about news scoops of the 1990s. It’s clear that Gillespie’s Tonya is the champion this season, Robbie and Janney both top contenders come Oscar night (break a leg, ladies!) — why no Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay or Best Director nod, one will never know.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner