4 out of 5 stars.
The 1994 Winter Olympics saw a record number of people tune in to watch the women’s figure skating competition, not for the sport itself, but for the drama surrounding U.S. skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. It’s something that’s true even of director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers’ version of the events, “I, Tonya.” It is some time into the film, which up to a certain point examines Harding’s life and early skating career, with emphasis on her toxic relationships with her mother and husband, before we get to what the characters refer to as “the incident,” and Harding, in one of several moments in which the characters break the fourth wall, tells the audience that she knows that that is really what they came here for. It’s that sort of self-awareness that is shown throughout the film that sets it apart from being your average true story-to-film, or soapy sports melodrama.
The narrative is framed by interviews being given by some of the film’s main players, allowing the audience to see and hear the action from different points of view. Those players include Tonya (Margot Robbie), her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her skating coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson), bodyguard (and Jeff’s friend) Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), and Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale), a producer for a tabloid news show called “Hard Copy.” The film begins with hints of what’s to come, but otherwise begins by looking at Tonya’s life from the age of four, when her mother put her into skating lessons. Her talent is immediately obvious, prompting teenage Tonya to drop out of school to pursue skating full time. She puts up with verbal and physical abuse from her mother for much of her life, and after meeting and marrying Jeff, from her husband as well. Unlike her fellow skaters, Tonya comes from a poor, redneck family with a poor reputation, one that holds the judges back from scoring her as well as her competitors, even though she is just as much, if not more, talented. As it turns out, these scenes are much more interesting that the drama that we all supposedly came to this movie for—maybe because they are actually the more dramatic drama. “I, Tonya” is largely a black comedy, with the turbulent relationships and the outright stupidity of some of the characters being played for laughs. But there’s a surprising amount of emotional depth beneath that laughter, and fortunately the film never feels like it is poking fun at Tonya herself. She says that her mother and husband abused her and made it feel like it was her fault, and we believe her. Her struggle to rise to the top is made harder by her turbulent home life and her lower class status, so we root for her to do well, even though she is not a heroic protagonist or even an entirely sympathetic character.
Ultimately, her ability to land a triple axel (a move no other American skater had completed before) gets her in to the 1992 and later 1994 Olympics, which is when the incident occurs. That incident has spurned so many contradictory tales from those involved, it’s hard to tell if we will ever know the full truth or not. In a nutshell, here’s how the story goes: Jeff hires Shawn to get some guys to post letters threatening skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) so she will be too scared to compete, giving Tonya a leg up in the competition. Instead, Shawn hires an extraordinarily incompetent crook to bash in Nancy’s knee, so she will be physically unable to compete. It doesn’t take long for the event to link back to Jeff and then Tonya in turn, who is said to have known about the proposed attack before it occurred.
The aforementioned framing of the narrative using interviews does allow for multiple perspectives, purportedly giving the audience the chance to make up their own minds about what really happened. It largely feels like the story sides with Tonya, who loses everything due to her ex-husband’s actions, but there are little moments of dialogue that throw her innocence into question, namely a couple of times when older Tonya bring up Nancy in the middle of telling a completely different story, as if she is overly eager to show just how uninvolved in the whole incident she was. “What kind of friggin’ person bashes in their friend’s knee?” she says at one point. “Who would do that, to a friend?” The voiceovers and scenes from the interviews are nicely edited into the narrative, so they often flow in and out of each other seamlessly. At times, Tonya’s monologues feel like overkill, as she says some iteration of the line “I was loved for a minute, then I was hated,” over and over, but it is nothing short of chilling when, toward the end of the film, she has one of those moments of breaking the fourth wall and says directly to the audience, “It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.” Suddenly we, the audience, who were earlier in the film jokingly ridiculed for coming to watch the drama, are just as guilty as the characters on screen.
There are many effective touches like that made throughout the film, a credit to both Rogers’ script and Gillespie’s direction. Gillespie does an especially good job shooting the skating scenes, often starting out on a close-up of Tonya’s face to reveal her emotional state prior to her routine and then zooming out when she starts to move. The costume and make-up choices for Tonya are also very effective. Her home-made skating costumes are colorful and borderline tacky compared to the other skaters, cementing her lower-class status. The soundtrack also uses classic rock songs to differentiate Tonya’s skating personality from the others, and to highlight her drive and ambition.
But despite everything else it has going for it, the performances in “I, Tonya” are what really stand out. We’ve seen Robbie play tough characters and crazy characters before, and she uses all of that prior experience for this role. As I mentioned before, Tonya is not a traditionally sympathetic character, but we still feel for her and all she has been through because of Robbie’s fierce performance. Stan, who has had a long and varied career but nowadays is mainly knowing for playing Bucky Barnes in the Marvel cinematic universe, gets to show a different side in his performance as Jeff, who is sweet and caring on the surface but whose over-protectiveness extends to violence. Janney steals the show as the harsh LaVona, whose near-constant swearing and hurling insults at everyone she encounters is often played for laughs, but it’s the rare moments where she shows just a glimmer of compassion that make up the most impressive parts of her performance.
“I, Tonya” is often as sensational as the real life story it tells, but thanks to the cast and crew, it also has a lot more substance than you’d expect. The tone, which vacillates between humorous and serious, is often uneven, but in a way that mirrors the uneven personalities of the characters in the film. Sure, we may come to this movie for wacky melodrama, like Tonya says, but it’s the protagonist herself who proves to be the much more intriguing subject.
Runtime: 120 minutes. Rated R.