For most Americans of a certain age, Tonya Harding remains an unforgettable figure. The ice princess with the apparent mouth of a sailor; the bad competitor who tried to scalp Nancy Kerrigan’s career with the dumbest criminal conspiracy this side of a Home Alone movie; pure ‘90s kitsch. In her time, she was pop culture furniture, every bit as derided as a certain white Ford Bronco and a blue dress. Yet all that baggage simply makes I, Tonya that much more delicious, not least of all because the collective memory of Harding would seem to be wrong, as per the film.
Skating a line as thin as any triple-axel landing, I, Tonya mischievously balances itself at the odd angle between gallows humored satire and a pointed tragedy that is just as quick to indict its audience’s appetite for blood as it is to blame Harding for surrounding herself with buffoons. Both a black comedy and a lamentation over the personal and communal signals that doomed Tonya to punchline-status, even I, Tonya’s title underscores the dueling elements of its premise: here is an athlete whose self-aggrandizement would place her trials on the same footing as ancient Roman epics like I, Claudius—and yet it’s still as bitterly sad as any other opera about a swift rise and crashing fall.
Taking more than a few pages from Martin Scorsese’s narrative playbook about smalltime (read: stupid) criminals, I, Tonya embraces the ambiguity surrounding an infamous celebrity by conveying its story from the perspective of multiple, and frequently contradictory, narrators. Primarily the wistful recollections of a now middle-aged Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the movie wallows in depicting its film as a he-said, she-said. Throughout the picture, the now very divorced couple will alternate in narrating scenes, with one occasionally breaking the fourth wall in the other’s version of events by dismissing them while staring dead into the camera. (But given events of the last year, Jeff’s insistences on never physically beating Tonya are going to fall on entirely deaf ears).
Indeed, Robbie’s Tonya is a collection of contemptuous mini-rebellions. Growing up in a poor, white rural setting, she’d never fit in with the actual ice princesses she skates against, and thus chooses to never try. She wears costumes which she designs herself and skates to ZZ Top as opposed to Bach. This Tonya enjoyed provoking disdainful judges long before Nancy Kerrigan’s knee was bent the wrong way, and she continues to do so in the present interludes where Robbie under makeup flicks her cigarettes in her modest kitchen with the obvious desire to throw ash in the audiences’ eyes.
This confrontational affectation though is apparently born out of a lifetime of being confronted by violence, first in the psychological and physical abuse by her mother LaVona (a wickedly brilliant Allison Janney), then the teenage husband she escaped with in Jeff, and finally in the bloodthirstiness of a media and elite class that savored the schadenfreude of chewing up and throwing away the white trash where it belongs: in the backwoods gutter that she dared to escape from.
Oh, and somewhere in the middle there, Tonya briefly becomes the number one skater in America… and then gets embroiled in an extraordinary idiot’s plan to literally kneecap her Olympic competition. It’s also when this dimwitted friend of Jeff’s (Paul Walter Hauser) starts discussing his espionage training that the movie’s fangs really come out.
As a biopic that enjoys putting its finger in the eye of standard true story dramatizations, I, Tonya lives and dies by its performances, which score high across the board. Margot Robbie has been one of the rising stars of the decade, but truly breaks through as a major talent with this indie she also produced. Once again enjoying the indulgence of wearing a unique American dialect after her heavy Queens intonations in The Wolf of Wall Street, the Australian actress devours a Northwestern tongue so thick that it’s a marvel she doesn’t choke.
While bearing little resemblance to the real Tonya Harding, Robbie commands the role by tackling much of the physicality on the ice wherever possible, and Tonya’s foulmouthed aggression everywhere else. Also by never losing touch of the vulnerability and surprisingly resonant humanity beneath the fiery figure skater, Robbie is able to keep the humor of the ridiculousness of Harding’s story ever visible without losing its melancholy.
The others do strong work too, with Hauser playing moronic comic relief to a tee, but the one who steals the movie is Janney as Tonya’s awful mother. Personifying every gruesome stereotype of stage mothers—her lofty goal is to browbeat her three-year-old into an Ice Capades performer—Janney is unrelenting and unapologetic about playing a devastating force of ugly human nature. Whether dropping c-bombs at children or throwing a steak knife at her daughter, Janney never winces at cutting into the role with a surgeon’s precision. It’s so good that I’ll eat my skates if she isn’t a nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
This all plays well into director Craig Gillespie’s sardonic vision. Easily the helmer’s best movie since Lars and the Real Girl 10 years ago, Gillespie returns to his knack for finding sweetness in potentially uneasy premises, be it via romancing blow-up dolls or telling sympathetic accounts of Tonya Harding’s life. And he really does succeed in the latter by not shying away from the absurdity of Tonya—even if apparently unwittingly in the movie’s account—allowing her “bodyguard” to send men after her rival’s knee.
With a frisky pace and editing style evocative of Scorsese, the biopic has a brisk freshness that avoids too much sentimentality; it also does an impressive job of turning the camera into a ghostly skating partner with Robbie during the movies several kinetic moments on the ice. If it falls short anywhere, it is perhaps being too glossy as it glides toward the final stretch of its routine. With a soundtrack almost solely comprised of contemporary pop tunes, also like Goodfellas, there is a smoothness to its arc that ultimately skates around the darkest implications of its third act, which sees class warfare skid into the realm of human sacrifice.
Nevertheless, I, Tonya is a biting triumph that aims to kick more than just the air before its performance is finished. The movie challenges the media’s vindictiveness, the 24-hour news cycle of sensationalism, and even gawking moviegoers of being as complicit as the trashy folks who ensnared Tonya, beginning at birth, into a lifelong trajectory that was always headed downward. It’s so brutally aware of the buttons it’s pushing that it knows exactly where that razor-sharp wit finally lands: in the audience’s jugular.
I, Tonya opens on Friday, Dec. 8.