I, Tonya December 29, 2017
Paul Walter Hauser
2 Hrs., 1 Min.
I, Tonya made me cry. What came wasn’t a puffy-nosed, red-faced fit, no — just a couple of warm drops down the cheek that came and went like Dean Cain’s superstardom. But still. In the scene during which they slipped out, the eponymous disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie, fantastic) stands before a judge, the world feeling as though it’s about to come crashing down. It is a few days after the “incident” (you know, the time her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly [Sebastian Stan] half-jokingly orchestrated a knee-clubbing attack against competitor Nancy Kerrigan without her knowledge), and a jury has finally decided how our acrimonious Tonya’s going to pay the price for her supposed involvement.
The verdict is a crotch-kicker, delivered with monotone sting. She will be on probation for three years, endure 500 hours of community service, and pay a $160,000 fine. She will also have to resign from the 1994 World Figure Skating Championships and bow out of the United States Figure Skating Association.
Tonya doesn’t care about all the time, money, and freedom she’s going to lose, however, and she certainly does not seem to much mind that her reputation’s now become more libel proof than Gene Simmons’. What hits Tonya in the heart like a baton to the kneecap is the being stripped of all her skating honors and distinctions. That she will likely never be able to compete again. Tonya starts pleading like a hungry Doberman puppy, going through the motions of the “skating is all I have” verbal clichés that all sitting in the courtroom had probably been expecting to hear. No one’s particularly moved by what she has to say. But I was. Skating was all she had. Skating was the only thing she knew. And in her impassioned cries did I come to realize that the culture-wide condemnation of her was deeply unfair. This woman was a victim herself, not a tabloid villain.
The movie dramatizing her story isn’t altogether romanticized in its storytelling, though; it isn’t self-righteous, and it doesn’t attempt to whitewash its subject and redefine her as a saint. Instead, it provides new emotional dimension — and humanity — to a seemingly set-in-stone, decade-defining true crime story. It’s this that makes the film so engaging — and unsettling. Told entirely in flashback, with fictionalized talking-head interviews from the present day acting as the foundation to which we stick, we see Tonya grow from an impressionable 3-year-old to an embittered, middle-aged woman whose weariness is visible on her worn-out body.
In these flashbacks, we discover that Tonya was essentially forced into competitive figure skating by her caustic, abusive mother LeVona (Allison Janney) as a tot. (“She’s a soft four,” LeVona sardonically asserts when a local skating instructor says she doesn’t take on kids so young.) As she grew, abuse at the hands of both LeVona and her eventual husband Gillooly sculpted her into a defensively acidic and prickly woman. Says Tonya to a thin-lipped skating judge who gives her a less-than-satisfying score early in the film, “Suck my dick!” We laugh, but then our hair stands up. To Tonya, nastiness is an off-the-cuff defense mechanism.
The flashbacks also help us conclude that Tonya was perhaps the greatest figure skater of her generation, but was never really recognized as such because of her shunning at the hands of the elitist figure skating community. (An effect of her self-presentation — part white trash, part hard-living-induced brutal honesty — and upbringing.) Most importantly, though, they additionally inform us that the entire Nancy Kerrigan incident was plotted and executed behind her back. It was Gillooly and a bunch of mouth-breathing buffoons with Great Clips haircuts and laughable cheesetaches who did the scheming. Stitched together is a whip smart and urgent biopic, increasingly candid the more it develops. Sure, I, Tonya is a blackened romp as sharp as a straight razor, a reverse comedy of manners in which the lives of the lowly are lampooned and volatility becomes a competition. But it’s also a cockeyed tale of abuse and the effects it can have on a person’s sense of self. Of a sabotaged attempt at achieving an American dream characterized by love, success, and happiness.
The movie in store makes for a nimble balancing act. It has to juggle its entanglement of tones all the while gracefully avoiding mockery. It has to humanize its subject but still take much of the hot gas out of the tabloid operatics delineated by emulating Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) here and Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995) there. And it must be rib-tickling but vulnerable, farcical but honest. One step in the wrong direction and I, Tonya’d fall apart like Tonya herself following a failed triple axel. But it never missteps: Steven Rogers’ screenplay ensures all the laughs are substantial and bruising — so much of the comedy derives from uncomfortability and behavioral idiocy on the parts of its characters — and that Tonya never becomes a caricature of the underdog staple. (Rogers wisely traveled to Oregon before writing the screenplay and did actually chat with Tonya, Gillooly, and other persons of interest.) Director Craig Gillespie takes the material and spins it into a complex but nonetheless terse comedy as escapist as it is hard-edged and thoughtful.
But it’s mostly thoughtful, its two hours effortlessly cramming in a great many thematic ideas that fly. “America. They want someone to love, but they also want someone to hate,” the fictionalized Tonya declares toward the end of the film, epitomizing the movie’s sneaky way of denouncing the bottom-feeding media’s way of commodifying young women and turning their personal dramas into money-making stories. “Nancy gets hit one time, and the whole world shits … For me, it’s an all-the-time occurrence,” Tonya spits between a cigarette at one point, summarizing the film’s subversive methods of depicting how abuse can influence a person’s well-being. (This memorable line also arguably says something about the widespread societal treatment of women, too: if you’re a prim-and-proper good girl like Kerrigan, most are going to be inclined to kiss your ass and hang onto your every word; if you’re profane and visibly lower-middle-class like Tonya, you’re inevitably going to be deemed undesirable and thus nudged toward the shadows.)
The gashes go deep. But the slicing isn’t only administered by the ideas presented: the ensemble, perhaps the nastiest in a mainstream feature in recent memory, do a lot of the cutting, too. Robbie, never better and destined for an Oscar nomination (maybe even a win), gets Tonya right. While we’re initially pressed to guffaw at the character’s various acerbities, we eventually come to notice that they’re really just covering a close-to-shattering interior. Robbie finds a balance between grounded absurdity and carefully administered vulnerability; she can be funny when she wants, but she can also be heartbreaking, earning as many laughs as shed tears.
Stan and Janney, as Tonya’s primary abusers, steal scenes in ways they’ve rarely been afforded in their varied and under-appreciated careers. Stan is alternately pathetic and terrifying as the unstable Gillooly, the performance colored with a sort of man-childishness that makes his fall from grace (if he even had public grace to speak of) all the more fascinating. Janney gets a meaty role here — an intimidating scowl’s as dependably on her face as a cigarette between her fingers, a fur coat on her skeletal body — and delivers her bitchy lines more corrosively than a villainous Mommie Dearest ever could. Janney gets some of the movie’s biggest laughs – "Lick my ass, Diane, she can do a fucking triple," she memorably seethes on one occasion – but interesting about the humor that escapes from her frowning mouth is that it isn’t actually funny. It’s just so breathtakingly abrasive we’re not exactly sure how to react. We love to hate her.
Julianne Nicholson, wearing a Carol Channing wig and upper class niceties as Tonya’s coach, and Paul Walter Hauser, featherbrained and boastful as the key driving force in the “incident,” make big impressions, too. But of all the impressions made in I, Tonya, at the top stems from a newfound understanding that we've been wrong about the titular Miss Harding all these years: she was a victim, not the predator history’s turned her into. That this discovery’s being made almost three decades after she was originally culturally vilified is a tragedy in itself.
But then again, Tonya's not the type to need our approval to keep on keeping on. In one of the film's closing shots — which informs us that in the years following her skating career did she take up boxing — Tonya's punched so hard, she’s knocked to the ground. Her mouthguard flies in the air like a paper plane. Then, without missing a beat, she gets right back up. After being pushed around, both physically and emotionally, for a lifetime, that is perhaps the only thing she could confidently say she mastered. And such is what makes her an unsung American hero — and one of the most unexpectedly affecting movie characters of 2017. A
This review also appeared in The Daily.