Film Review – I, Tonya
Before heading into I, Tonya, I’d already heard titters of “Goodfellas On Ice!” or “Scorsese-lite,” and to be sure, this is director Craig Gillespie‘s love letter to the chunky framed auteur. But look beyond the pastiche and you begin to see it’s not just a love letter to Scorsese, but the innovation of film itself and its ability to still surprise you. I, Tonya gets its grips in you early and doesn’t let go. I think I loved it.
Filmgoers of a certain age will remember what the movie glibly refers to as “the incident.” Olympic figure-skating phenom Tonya Harding‘s 1994 downfall after being inadvertently (?) involved in the knee-capping of ice nemesis, Nancy Kerrigan, orchestrated by husband Jeff Gillooly and hapless bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt. It was the media frenzy that started it all. The Pre-OJ water cooler topic of choice. It was, in other words, a shit show.
Margot Robbie turns in a viciously hardened performance as Tonya, the emotionally and physically abused trailer park princess America loved to mock. Starting from the age of 3, it was apparent she had a gift for skating. A gift her unloving mother (a biting Allison Janney) looked to exploit at every opportunity. Their unsettling relationship is further explored through some sequences in her teenage years and building to her unprecedented nailing of the triple axel, a famously difficult move she was the first to accomplish. This undeniable talent should have secured her sponsorships and a lifetime of wealth and opportunity, if not for one problem: Tonya Harding, the chain-smoking, frizzy haired, ZZ Top loving foul-mouth just doesn’t sell. Enter Kerrigan.
The film takes its time before getting into Harding’s rocky emergence into tabloid stardom, yet nevertheless breezes by on the strength of the actors and rat-tat-tat filmmaking style. (Fourth walls will be shattered and narrations WILL be unreliable.) Tensions rise with the introduction of now-renowned sleazeball Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a sort of hillbilly casanova who sees his meal ticket and pounces. What follows is a brutally rocky relationship, too often punctuated with fists. It’s easy to scoff at Tonya for continuing to go back to him, despite his obvious awfulness, but love can be cyclical, even (or especially) when it’s poisonous. Besides, where else to go but back into the arms of her, arguably equally reprehensible mother.
Stan is strong as Gillooly, shifting from doofy to terrifying and back again so flawlessly it’s mesmerizing. As her bodyguard, Paul Walter Hauser gets some of the movie’s big laughs as Eckhardt, a man so stupid you’d think it was fake if not for the real footage of him provided over the end credits.
Make no mistake, though, and don’t let the shifting narrative fool you: this is Tonya Harding’s story. Not only does Gillespie purposely seem to obscure just how involved Harding was with “the incident,” the baton-bashing itself consumes maybe a minute of screen time. Furthermore, unless my memory has failed me (known to happen), Caitlin Carver‘s Nancy Kerrigan doesn’t have a single line of dialogue outside of her infamous cries of “whyyy.” No, Gillespie is much more interested in Tonya’s unflappable determination to succeed. And whether you think she has or not, her story has made for my first favorite film of 2018.