You can add the whole Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan situation to the Lindbergh baby and Phil Spector on the list of moments of recent history that I know exist but know almost nothing about. As a viewer, this is a perfect way to go into the movie; with enough knowledge to get you interested, but enough ignorance to be surprised by the plot. Add that to the hype surrounding this movie and some of its performances and I was pretty into I, Tonya.
The movie opens with the quote, "Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly". This is a brilliant piece of writing from screenwriter Steven Rodgers. When you stick a "based on true events" at the beginning of a movie, there are certain expectations. The story that I, Tonya tells would seem almost to silly and ridiculous to be taken as fact, and at times gets dark enough that we hope it's not.
Along with it's claim that the information gained for the movie comes from interviews, I, Tonya utilizes a bit of a mockumentary style. I am as tired of this whole schtick as the next guy and unfortunately I, Tonya does nothing to shake up the same ole cliches. The editing and commentary is ho hum and there is even for some reason a few moments when the actual characters break the fourth wall. If it helps to make the viewer more invested I am all for it, but the mockumentary style is a subtle one and should not be used in every situation.
With the mockumentary style inherently comes lazy writing, and while the dialogue is not terrible, it's not amazing either. This is where great actors can come in and turn a movie around, and there are some real good ones here. Margot Robbie is incredibly strong in the lead, she is a true movie star able to carry a movie and I even had moments where I forgot it was her, very immersive. Sebastian Stan, an actor that I have kind of written off as a B rate super hero movie actor is also super strong. His character is meek and helpless at times but can turn a switch and become dangerous and scary, very well done.
I was actually surprised at how little I like Allison Janney in this movie. Coming off a golden globe win for best supporting actress I was excepting to be impressed, but she came off as scene eating and basically a play on every other Allison Janney character I have ever seen. Her character is pretty bonkers and for sure is one that really takes some gusto that Janney pulls off, but the performance was not award worthy for me, especially in a field that I think featured at least 2 if not 3 better performances.
Director Craig Gillespie has had a bit of an up and down filmography. He made Lars and the Real Girl starring Ryan Gosling back in 2007, but has struggled since with the Fright Night remake in 2011 and the incredibly boring The Finest Hours in 2016. I, Tonya is a great outing for Gillespie both in the way he paints a cinematic picture and his ability to make this story entertaining.
There are some tremendously visceral moments here ranging from the slam of the skate on ice when Tonya hits the first triple axel by an American skater in competition, to the crash of her head being slammed into a wall with a framed paining on it. The interesting thing is you can go watch Tonya's iconic triple axel on youtube and the portrayal in the movie is incredibly close. You can tell that both the writer and director did their homework and the movie is way better for it.
I, Tonya does not do any one thing exceptionally well, Robbie's performance is great but will almost certainly fall short this awards season. The writing is well done, but does nothing special and breaks some screenwriting rules. The direction is probably the best part of the movie and helped bring some structure to a story that is a bit all over the place at times. With a run time that lands right at 2 hours, I, Tonya is certainly worth a watch and is one of the better movies of the year, even if it will fall short come awards season.