Who would have ever imagined Tonya Harding as the subject of a great movie? Tonya Harding, who is remembered, if at all, as a national joke; whose real achievements as a figure skater are completely forgotten, and who was at the center of a scandal that was even more ridiculous than it was shocking. How could a movie about her be anything but a cold-blooded farce, or the equivalent of one of those tabloid shows that you accidentally stumble onto on a Saturday afternoon, and then wonder what’s wrong with your life that you keep watching?
“I, Tonya” is a movie that will transform how you feel about Tonya Harding without necessarily altering your opinion of her. That’s a significant distinction. It doesn’t try to change your mind about the facts, but it adds more facts that put things into context. It is irreverent, caustic, brutal and unsparing; but at its core, “I, Tonya” has a generous spirit. Spoiler alert: Tonya kind of got the shaft.
It’s a remarkably free piece of work and presumably was that way as originally written in Steven Rogers screenplay. At one point Tonya (Margot Robbie), enacting something supposedly from her own past, turns to the camera and says, “This is b–-. I never did this.” Throughout, characters directly address the audience in interview scenes, which are set in the present, and these accounts introduce scenes from the past.
The characters’ versions of the truth often contradict each other; and yet even when they do, Rogers and director Craig Gillespie have a way of steering the audience to an overall sense of the basic facts. One fact of many: Harding did not exactly luck out in the mother department. Allison Janney — everyone will walk out of the movie talking about her — in her Golden Globe-winning role as best supporting actress — outdoes herself as LaVona, Tonya’s mother. She sits on a couch, with a parrot on her shoulder, and just spews bile.
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What makes Janney so compelling, so chilling and yet so funny as LaVona — both in her modern-day scenes (hooked up to oxygen) and her earlier scenes (smoking constantly) — is the flat, unapologetic directness of her attack and her commitment to the narrowness of LaVona’s point of view. In life, it’s rare to meet someone with no redeeming traits, but in the movies it’s even rarer, because actors are often so vain. But Janney is without vanity here, and without mercy.
Harding apparently spent her early life as a punching bag, first for her mother, and then for her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and Gillespie does something very skillful in his depiction of the violence. Though very often the violent moments in “I, Tonya” punctuate scenes that are otherwise farcical and funny, Gillespie, through careful technique, makes sure that the violence never becomes the punchline. Instead, as he films it, violence interrupts the comedy. It is always explosive, unexpected and disturbing.
Among other things, “I, Tonya” is a movie about class, as it exists in the United States but also, specifically, in the world of figure skating. Tonya Harding had lots of talent, but in a package the skating world was reluctant to accept. In her homemade costumes, she looked like Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed,” and her style was more muscular and athletic than the judges were looking for. If life were a movie, she’d have eventually won them over with her working class charm and the rightness of her vision. Instead, everything went crazy.
The movie does assert what might be true, that for a brief window of time, Tonya Harding was the best women’s figure skater in the world. But the low point comes not long after, when people associated with Harding start a conspiracy to assault her chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) and eliminate her from competition. What follows unspools as a comic nightmare. That is, it’s comic when we witness it from the outside, with Harding’s witless husband and his friend Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser) doing their dangerous re-enactment of “Dumb and Dumber.” But it’s a nightmare when we see it through Tonya’s eyes, as she watches the destruction of her reputation and life’s work.
As Tonya, Robbie is coarse and vulgar and smarter than absolutely nobody besides the people closest to her, and she nurses an aura of grievance that is in no way appealing despite its being justified. But Robbie shows us a fierceness in Tonya, an instinct for survival, that’s admirable, and she and the movie remind us that we viewers are not entirely pure in this, that we are all part of Tonya’s exploitation. Robbie does emotionally true, unsentimental work here, and then there’s the physical aspect of her performance to consider, from the body language she adopts for Tonya’s various stages of life to the skating scenes — though body doubles did the big jumps and the spins.
In closing, something should be said about the feeling of “I, Tonya,” which might not otherwise come across. It’s buoyant. It’s bright. It has lots of pop music on the sound track, none of it from 1991 or 1994, and almost all of it from the late 1970s, mostly 1977 and 1978. The movie’s mix of music and era doesn’t quite make sense, strictly speaking, but like everything in this loose, inspired and yet tonally precise film, it feels right.
Rated: R for pervasive language, violence, some sexual content/nudity. Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney. Director: Craig Gillespie. Running time: 120 minutes. Theater: Flicks.