Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and God Hates Geeks.
Skating on Has-Been Ice
I was three weeks away from turning 10 years old when Nancy Kerrigan was originally attacked in 1994. It’s surreal to look back on it because that is as memorable as the OJ Simpson murder trial that began in November of the same year. I was in third grade and living in California at the time and while I can’t remember the names of the friends I had or the teachers there, Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan stood the test of time because witnessing every ten year old around you discuss it in whispers during lectures in class and loud conversations as we bounced from one classroom to another in crowded hallways resulted in something unforgettable. Given the age I was at the time and the location I remember it coming up the most, it’s almost as if South Park got a hold of it and the heartfelt and vulgarity-fueled I, Tonya is the belated offspring that powered through the womb with a triple axel 23 years later.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, the 2011 Fright Night remake), I, Tonya is presented in a unique way. In the present, the film has a documentary feel to it with interviews in front of a single camera. Meanwhile, in the past, everything plays out in traditional fashion as the story unfolds except that during flashbacks or scenes that sidestep the current storyline and document how something may or may not have happened (one person’s word against the other) the characters often break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera/audience. So while the film dances between comedy and drama, it also toys with what elements of the story are factual and gives those moments their own visual style.
The three lead actors in the biographical sports black comedy are all extraordinary. While Sebastian Stan had the opportunity to branch out somewhat in this year’s Logan Lucky in comparison to his time as Bucky/The Winter Soldier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he has a much more substantial role in I, Tonya as her first husband Jeff Gillooly. Stan is completely unlikable as Gillooly with extremely abusive and possessive qualities that would be terrifying and dangerous for anyone to be around on a regular basis. Jeff Gillooly is the toxic element of Tonya’s life that she can’t seem to get away from. He is one of the things holding her back, but how broken and volatile the two are together is absolutely mesmerizing.
Allison Janney (American Beauty, The Help) portrays Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden. Janney’s brilliant lack of emotion and ability to come off as so cold and uncaring is what makes her performance remarkable. LaVona is cruel when it comes to being a mother. While she recognizes Tonya’s passion, desire, and talent with figure skating, she is never happy or satisfied with Tonya’s output. Compassion is something that is completely foreign to LaVona while her harsh demeanor, cutthroat personality, and fuming hatred for all mankind make her entertaining as someone viewing this from the outside looking in, but devastatingly brutal to imagine as her being your actual mother.
This is currently the best role Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street) has ever had. As Tonya Harding, Robbie has this fire about her. She knows how talented she is, but she refuses to be like the other women skaters. Talent wise, Tonya knows she is the best since she has the skill and a maneuver no one else can execute. But she restrains herself by refusing to present herself with the beauty, grace, and dignity that would launch her to that upper tier of figure skaters she so desperately wants to be a part of. Tonya speaks her mind complete with vulgarity, has a short fuse, and a rotten public image that may get everyone watching but is mostly seen as a train wreck by her peers. Robbie has this intensity she hasn’t been able to showcase before while her foul mouth and lack of self-control seem to only solidify her status as a raunchy yet desirable girl next door.
Craig Gillespie’s captivating storytelling and powerful performances from a talented cast are likely what elevated a little independent film to a potential Oscar nominated feature seemingly overnight, but I, Tonya has even more buried within its two hour routine. The film has a lot to say regarding abusive relationships and poverty. If you grew up anywhere in between middle class status and struggling on welfare, then you probably find this aspect of films relatable or at least more believable than films revolving around extravagant and luxurious lifestyles. Tonya is never really able to shake her underprivileged roots and that’s interesting given her opportunity. That financial struggle is an aspect everyone deals with so it adds this authentic layer to something we all watched on TVs that we probably had to get up and switch a dial counter-clockwise to change the channel on rather than the press of a button on a remote. Gaining the spotlight doesn’t always result in fame and fortune. In Tonya’s case, she’ll probably never be forgotten thanks to being chiseled in the annals of infamy. I, Tonya highlights what it’s like to be on the ugly side of the public eye while the glamour and notoriety are always just out of reach.
The physical abuse is also fascinating. It’s naturally disheartening and sickening, but coping with it and agreeing to live with it to serve a purpose rather than just distancing yourself from it makes you realize it’s an issue that isn’t always so simple to get rid of. Tonya and Jeff beat the holy hell out of one another and divorce, separate, and get back together more times than you can count throughout the course of the film. Physically, mentally, and emotionally; Tonya is beaten from every angle and in every way imaginable but she always gets back up. She has been fighting an uphill battle her entire life and she’s not about to give up because that’s all she knows.
I, Tonya is an unbelievable cinematic experience that speaks to your heart, caters to your sense of humor, and knocks you over with its sheer amount of spunk and ass-kicking attitude. Margot Robbie is an explosive delight and Craig Gillespie has found a way to make figure skating as intimidating as being initiated into the mafia.
© 2017 Chris Sawin
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 23, 2017:
This sounds like an interesting film, I think I'd enjoy this. =)