I suppose we’ve kind of grown accustomed to the overly stylish, hyper real tell-all films about absolutely bonkers scenarios, War Dogs and The Big Short being the most recent ones I can think of. But I, Tonya feels most deserving of such a hyper charged retelling of a story involving some of the most inept douche canoes ever to perpetrate a crime. It’s not only a fairly harsh look at how we the people tend to build and destroy celebrity, but our almost complete inability to accept the blame for anything. This is less a story about a shattered kneecap, and more so about a group of people who fail to take responsibility for their own actions.
For the uninitiated (and those born after 1995), I, Tonya follows the stranger-than-fiction story of infamous ice skater, Tonya Harding, who, in 1994 was embroiled in a scandal whereby her fellow Olympic team mate, Nancy Kerrigan, was kneecapped by an assailant known to Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly. What ensued was probably one of the most quintessential American stories of our time. So, naturally, it had to be a movie.
Firstly, this is a film worthy of a trigger warning. For those that find depictions of domestic abuse difficult to watch, you’re really going to want to skip this. The film walks a sharper-than-normal, razor thin line in the way in which it shows violent relationships, between being almost comedic to downright harrowing. It’s not so much that it’s no holds barred, but more so that it’s extremely matter of fact, almost to the point where the shock of it can elicit a sudden, confused giggle from the audience. Director, Craig Gillespie softens this at some points by having Robbie break the fourth wall a couple of times (before having her face break an actual wall). Where other films will shy away from such violence, preferring to allude to it, in I, Tonya moments of abuse are almost used as a weapon against the audience. Punches come out of nowhere and fights break out regularly, as Gillespie further frays the nerves of his viewers.
Performance wise, all involved leave everything on the field. As Gillooly, Sebastian Stan is monstrously mild mannered, someone who is pathetic beyond pity, who doesn’t necessarily change persona when it comes to inflicting violence on his wife, but as if he’s so inept at expressing himself, violence is his only go to outlet, it essentially becoming an extension of who he is. As Harding’s mother, LaVona, Allison Janney pulls in a frightfully charismatic performance, the type that’ll make you hate her and her actions, but still laugh at her jokes. And while not the main antagonist of the film (no one actually is, but everyone is), she’s almost completely unlikeable, with any near-redeeming quality about her shot down within moments, which makes her performance all the more surprising when you can’t help but like her in some small way. Paul Walter Hauser’s Shawn, on the other hand, plays incompetence so beautifully, it actually physically hurt every time he opened his barbecue sauce-stained mouth. As Gillooly’s dumber-than-you-can-believe friend and unofficial bodyguard to Harding, the supposed mastermind behind the entire kneecapping “incident”, his mere presence will have you burying your head in your heads while muttering “no one can be this dumb, surely”. But they can.
Which brings me to Margot Robbie. This girl leaves absolutely nothing in the tank when it comes to her portrayal and performance of Harding. She’s got the goods, she knows she’s got the goods and she absolutely flings herself into the role with a complete “no f***s given” attitude that reminds me of Charlize Theron in Monster. She completely disappears into her role. I don’t know if she’ll snag the statue (because I am but a lowly keyboard warrior with really no skills in telling who should or shouldn’t deserve an Oscar), but at the very least she deserves the nomination. It’s not even how much of Harding can she get right, but how deep she’s willing to dig into her own vulnerability and show that off to the entire world.
The real genius to this movie – Robbie aside – is the way it refuses to treat some of the characters seriously. Rather than attempting to dramatize those involved, the film knows they’re complete knuckle dragging meatballs, and uses it to its advantage. Think the tension of a Bourne movie but with characters from Burn After Reading and you’ll start to get the picture. Gillespie and writer, Steven Rogers also realize that those walking into the cinema will also have prejudged Harding before they’ve even sat in their chairs. The film never really asks for you to forgive her in so much as understand her. When the story begins to tip intovictimhood (and rightfully so, given the brutality of the domestic abuse), we’re reminded that Harding herself isn’t exactly the most likeable character in her own story.
While it may seem like Oscar-bait to some, I, Tonya is really a two hour reminder of our macabre obsession with celebrity, our over enjoyment of watching others fall and a constant love of building people up to break them down only to turn around and say, “Well, they kind of deserved it”. While the story itself is over 20 years old, in our current culture of Insta celebrities and Youtube fame, it’s scarily relevant.