OnScreen Review: 'I, Tonya'

Noah Golden

A movie like “I, Tonya” shouldn’t work. A serious and true story about crime, abuse and Olympic gold shouldn’t be treated with the winking, broad delivery of a Coen Brothers comedy like “Burn After Reading.” A biopic of a famous figure skater shouldn’t be led by an actress who consistently looks a decade older than her real-life counterpart and performs in a blur of obvious CGI wizardry. A piece of historical non-fiction shouldn’t feel so much like the mix between a tar-black Christopher Guest mockumentary and one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling tales of human shortcomings.

And yet.

“I, Tonya” is both eclectic and electric. A fresh, energizing, fascinating and fearless film that’s both highly disturbing and wildly entertaining. It’s also a messy hodgepodge that tries to have its cake and eat it too, dispensing some unnecessary cinematic styles and gimmicks along the way. Yes, “I, Tonya” may be uneven – and I can imagine more than a few people being turned off by its questionably glib approach to serious topics like domestic violence – but not even its most fervent opposer can fault the film for being boring or unoriginal. Say what you want about Craig Gillespie’s feature, but this is a director swinging for the fences in a daring and incredibly exciting way. 

“I, Tonya” tells the (mostly) true story of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who became a household name in the early ‘90s. At the U.S. Championships before the 1992 Winter Olympics, Harding was the first skater ever to complete the ridiculously difficult triple axel jump in competition. But Harding was different than most of the other figure skaters. She was stockier and foul-mouthed, a self-proclaimed redneck who fixed cars and went hunting on the weekends. After her browbeaten father left during Tonya’s middle school years, she was raised exclusively by her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), a bitter, abusive dragon lady with a faux fur coat and perpetually lit cigarette. In the “modern” interview segments that frame the film, LaVona (now with oxygen tubes running in her nose) inserts dry, cruel quips with a parakeet perched on her shoulder. If the image brings to mind the malicious Jafar, you wouldn’t be too far off, both in the character’s motivation and subtlety.

During training one day while still in high school, Tonya meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a seemingly sweet lug who often hangs around with his obese, dim-witted friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). After a violent altercation with her mother, Tonya moves in with Jeff, sparking a long and turbulent relationship and marriage. Once Tonya’s career picks up, Jeff becomes increasingly possessive, angry and violent. During more than a few skating competitions, her heavy make-up covered black eyes and bruises.

But the most famous part of Tonya’s story occurred during the trials for the 1994 Olympics when her competitor Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted by a hired thug. Jeff and Shawn both spent jail time for masterminding the ordeal. How much Tonya knew about the attack is an unsolved pop culture mystery, one that is inventively sidestepped by screenwriter Steven Rogers.

The second half of the film, which concerns the crime and its aftermath, is more than a little reminiscent of “Fargo” with its bad liars, poor coincidences, and wildly inept criminals. Take for instance the attacker Shane Stant who, when waiting outside Kerrigan’s gym in Massachusetts, reparked his car every half hour for multiple days on end to avoid suspicion. That level of stupidity seems right out of a “Blades Of Glory” sequel, yet truth really is stranger (and funnier) than fiction.

  Far from a straight-forward biopic, Gillespie (most known to me for the bittersweet indie “Lars and the Real Girl”) films Tonya’s story with bright colors, striking camera choreography and (staged) talking head interviews, which turn the characters into their own Greek chorus. That device, with dialogue and even costuming taken directly from primary sources, works well and incorporates a nifty meta element to the film. The use of fourth wall breaking asides in a few key narrative scenes, though, reads as unnecessary and a touch too smug.

Even with wild cinematic mood swings, the cast is totally game. Robbie’s portrayal of Tonya is gutsy and vulnerable and nearly pitch-perfect. Stan, who unbeknownst to me is most famous for playing Marvel superhero Bucky Barnes, is utterly convincing as the schlubby Gillooly while Hauser delivers a hilarious performance as Shawn Eckhardt. Perpetually stuffing food in his mouth and purporting to be an international spy (despite living in his parents’ basement), his Shawn has an IQ not far above Patrick Star’s and is equally entertaining. Perhaps my biggest gripe with “I, Tonya” lies both in Allison Janney’s performance and the screenwriter’s treatment of LaVona. It’s a big juicy, showy role and Janney is unsurprisingly fantastic as a demonic Mama Rose variant. But, they paint LaVona in too broad, unidimensional strokes that renders her performance into a finely tuned caricature rather than a compelling human being. Even if that’s how Tonya saw her, a glimmer of humanity under her acid-tongued haranguing would have been appreciated.

But that gripe also lies at the very forefront of “I, Tonya.” Whose truth is being represented here? Can we trust the narrative being shown to us? Are we, the audience, being lied to? Where does the truth come from? Does it even matter?

As Tonya says near the end of the film, “There’s no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth.” In that sense, “I, Tonya” is the flipside of “Fargo,” a fictional film that pretends to be based on a true story. Here is a film actually based on a true story that toys with its made-up elements like a cat with yarn. But the endgame isn’t merely to confuse the audience or concoct a more compelling tale. Gillespie wisely uses this piece of early ‘90s history to tell an altogether contemporary parable, one of how the insatiable 24-hour news cycle (which was born just months before Tonya’s scandal broke) can shape the details of our reality.

Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckhardt are pretty regular people, but the narrative of their lives (at least to the public eye) has been written not as much by their actions, but the way media framed those actions. Journalists and TV producers turned a messy, complicated story into a modern-day farce with recognizable tropes: the trailer trash wunderkind, the elegant athlete, the domineering stage mother, the incompetent criminals, the fat, nerdy mama’s boy. They gave viewers the narrative they wanted to see. But at what cost to the people involved? What does “fake news” means to those whose real life is neither one of those things?

You could make a movie about Tonya Harding, the Olympic hopeful who currently lives far from the spotlight in Oregon with her husband and child. It might be restrained and realistic and bent on getting all the facts right. But Gillespie isn’t making a movie about that Tonya Harding. The “Tonya” in the title is rightfully in quotation marks. She is the product of countless television shows, late-night jokes, tabloid rumors and news packages. Now, her story is being reshaped and rehashed again in a daring and creative film with a lot of big ideas. It’s one of the most fascinating films of the year.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars