Home > Film, Reviews, Sports > Film Review: I, Tonya

Film Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya (2017; Directed by Craig Gillespie)

Caustic, fourth-wall-breaking, and unreliably narrated, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is an apt biopic approach to the sordid tabloid tale of American figure skating’s most iconoclastic and controversial figure. Spearheaded by a fiery and spiky but layered and sympathetic turn from Margot Robbie as former women’s singles champion Tonya Harding, who became infamous for her role in a brazen assault on her U.S. skating rival Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics, I, Tonya is a hilarious, scabrous film that cuts deep like a sharpened skate blade and, like its subject, mixes bracing, uncomfortable honesty with clumsy, self-justifying disingenuousness.

Its thesis is that Tonya Harding was a multifarious abuse victim, beat down psychologically and physically by her driven mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her insecure doofus husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), even by her sport’s governing body and its weird, deeply conservative, beauty-pageant-on-ice gender-image assumptions. More than anything, though, it understands Harding as being abused by her country, by its pitiless socioeconomic trajectories, by its wild-eyed, hysterical desperation in pursuit of fame and success, and by its inevitable hairpin turn towards puritanical moral scolding when confronted by a brazen, ambitious fast riser who takes its manifest destiny imperatives all too seriously and besieges its ramparts of class and status with all of the crude self-fashioned weaponry at her disposal. Indeed, Robbie’s Tonya stares down the barrel of the camera at one point and accuses the audience, the ravenous viewing public, of using her, of being just as complicit in her crimes as she herself was, let alone her disavowed idiot operatives.

I, Tonya divides itself between Harding’s personal tumults and skating sequences of kinetic dynamism, showcases of stunning technical and choreographic bravado by Gillespie, his cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, and his Oscar-nominated editor Tatiana S. Riegel (not to mention Robbie, who trained on skates for months in preparation, her skating doubles Heidi Munger and Anna Malkova, and her coach and choreographer Sarah Kawahara). In the later stages, the film is understandably taken over by what is referred to as “the incident”, the hapless Kerrigan caper and its shambolic aftermath establishing infamy for Harding, Gillooly, and Gillooly’s friend and Harding’s sometimes-bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Hauser’s Eckhardt is a ludicrous figure and consistent scene-stealer, a delusional loser living with his parents convinced that he has impressive, clandestine ties to international intelligence agencies and access to a network of secret operators (who prove in the breach to be even stupider than he is). Depending on who is asked about it in mockumentary interview inserts, Eckhardt either went rogue and turned intended psych-out threats into a physical attack on Kerrigan, or this was the plan Harding and Gillooly were making all along. I, Tonya might be criticized for choosing to be ambiguous on Harding’s involvement in the assault and thus absolving her, but its approach feels right, erring on the side of Harding’s self-absolving equivocation and simultaneous excusing and accepting of complicity.

Tonya Harding’s psychology and personal associations are tied into her persistent abuse by LaVona (Janney, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA for the supporting role, is a verbally vicious fireball with a streak of ends-justify-the-means self-righteousness) and by Gillooly by Steven Rogers’ screenplay. She repeatedly says that events as they unfolded were not her fault, but also blames herself for her mistreatment by others, in the commonly-observed way of abuse victims. But Robbie’s incandescent performance, at once iron-hard and heartbreakingly brittle, makes the skater’s experience and perspective compellingly real. Even in a movie like the horribly misbegotten Suicide Squad, Robbie showed a keen interest in women’s experiences of abuse. If David Ayer’s film proved unwilling (or more likely constitutionally unable) to explore Harley Quinn’s deformation of personality and Stockholm Syndrome manic-obsessive investment in her clown-painted abuser, it wasn’t because Margot Robbie was unwilling to do so. That willingness pays dividends here with a character and thematic package that deserves it.

While Harding’s domestic-abuse-ridden on-and-off relationship with Gillooly plays more directly into the collapse of her promising skating career, her relationship with her mother is the more important one in formative terms. Even after Harding cuts ties with LaVona after years of mistreatment (and a last-stray knife in the arm), they each seek the other out once more apiece, but the hint of reconciliation is in both instances a mere pretense, only pursued because they need something specific from the other to get what they want. Every relationship in I, Tonya operates on these transactional, acquisitional grounds (with the possible exception of Gillooly and Eckhardt’s strange friendship, which doesn’t much benefit either of them, ultimately), predicated on fulfilling some requirement that is basically never love.

Harding’s figure skating prowess is tied up in and ultimately poisoned by these abusive relationships and the public-eye glare that results from them, as the film’s depiction of her meltdown during the 1994 Olympic competition firmly implies: her purported skate-lace problem is suggested to be a pretense to disguise the roiling psychological turmoil that she ineffectually attempts to forcibly bury and that truly hijacks her performance (Robbie is tremendous through this entire sequence, carrying the weight of communicating all of these subtle and complex implications). But before she falls apart, skating is her passion and her love, her refuge in the glittering stars from the wearying mud of a painful life. I, Tonya‘s peak skating sequence is its dynamic take on Harding’s skate at the U.S. Nationals in 1991, when she became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition (the movie takes the time and effort to explain why this is a big deal in the context of the sport and even in fundamental athletic-mechanics terms, which is good because I can’t really be bothered). It’s presented as her high-water mark, her signature accomplishment, the best things ever got for her in spite of the worst she had to deal with. It’s meant to be inspiring, and it is, if fleetingly.

But I, Tonya understands figure skating as more than an escape or an outlet for dedication and accomplishment amidst a dearth of meaningful opportunities for Tonya Harding. It’s a conduit for aspirational wish-fulfillment, a fast-track to an exalted plateau of idealized, privileged American femininity for a young woman denied other routes to that promised land by circumstances of birth and nurture. This is keenly symbolized by her father (Jason Davis), unable to afford a real fur coat to emphasize his daughter’s femininity in the milieu of a sport that unspokenly requires such image-making, shooting rabbits to make her a fur coat from their skins (his departure upon separation from LaVona is young Tonya’s first and perhaps deepest trauma).

Robbie’s Harding is abrasive and confrontational, a cussing, drinking, smoking tomboy who attacks the ice with feral energy. This is what she knows from her upbringing, yes, but she also leans into these touchstones of the salt-of-the-earth white working class as a reaction to her lack of access to the upper echelons of her athletic discipline, which are (or were, at least in the period she competed in) defined as much by effective projection of a sort of elite gender ideal as they are by pure technical athletic performance. The latter might be democratically accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic level, but the former is more ephemeral and a function of assumptions of privilege, thus effectively policing the boundaries of access. Harding’s resentment towards the elegant ice-princess Nancy Kerrigan, and thus eventual focus on her as a despised arch-rival who stands in the way of her success, is merely a function of giving this more generalized frustration and resentment a specific individualized target.

I, Tonya is a tad reductive when it comes to the heteronormative imperatives and in-born gaudy weirdness of the figure skating world, probably because that isn’t where its interest lies (the Will Ferrell-led farce Blades of Glory is far more invested in the deeply bizarre insular world of this quasi-sport, even if it can’t always effectively negotiate the pervasive politics of gender projection therein even for comic effect). What it is much more interested in is American women’s figure skating as a stand-in for American society, with its limiting expectations of its competitors as only a slightly cartoonish exaggeration of American social and cultural expectations of women. Tonya Harding does not make for the purest and least problematic working-class countercultural heroine, for sure. But in the hands of director Craig Gillespie and star Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, she’s a lens filtering pervasive conceptions of beauty, class, and conduct that all women, prodigious ice athletes or not, must negotiate every day of their public and private lives.

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Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports
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