I, Tonya (2017)
Written by Steven Rogers
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Everyone has particular images and ideas when they hear the name “Tonya Harding.” In 1994 she was one of the most infamous people in the media. Her story has all the right hallmarks of the bizarre and tragic to make her the sort of person the news gobbles up. A figure skater from the “wrong side of the tracks” who didn’t mesh with the traditional prettiness of the skating establishment. Married to an abusive man who didn’t seem to have any direction in life. The two of them intermingled in a seeming conspiracy of the stupid to take out her rival for the Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya maintained she had no idea what was going on, but husband Jeff Gillooly kept insisting she was aware. A sort of practice run for the O.J. Simpson media circus.
This seems to the season for female-led sports biopics (see The Battle of the Sexes). I, Tonya is better than that previously mentioned film. It has a sense of style and tone beyond just recreating famous scenes or moments. The acting is stronger and doesn’t feel like so much mimicry, there are actual characters behind Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan’s performances. That said, there are some issues with the way the story was told.
The structure of the film reminded me of Goodfellas; lots of period music, fast camera movements, ironic character commentary over events. That’s definitely a compliment, but I felt the movie began to rely on this style a little too much, and instead of using it as a jumping off point for a more in-depth, more vibrant exploration of these characters it spiraled off into comedy. There are often points where the soundtrack becomes overwhelming when one song ends, and we immediately jump into another to underscore some point the director is trying to make. And because the emphasis appears to be comedy we don’t get a strong sense of empathy or pathos from the person that matters the most in the telling, Tonya Harding.
The film does an excellent job of informing us as to the extent of Harding’s abuse at her mother and then her husband’s hands. I was glad the film didn’t shy away from the brutality of this treatment. We see Harding slapped, hit with a closed fist, face slammed into picture frames with broken glass. At one point blood drips from her nose after one beating. Eventually, Gillooly misfires a revolver after making threats against her and suicide, and the bullet grazes Tonya’s cheek. The scene is played so tonally strange, as an audience member I feel like I should be horrified, but then there’s a slight bit of comedy out of the way Gillooly reacts to what he did.
At the of the film, I felt like I just watched something that was pretty surface level from an emotional standpoint. This is a result of the mixed messaging of the film. The entire affairs, save for a couple scenes, are played for laughs, using Harding’s natural acidic demeanor to heighten the comedy. However, near the end of the film, there’s a scene where she looks into the camera and mostly condemns the public for turning her into a joke. But the film has spent its entire run playing with that joke.
The acting is top notch. Margot Robbie does an excellent job of capturing Harding’s “rough” attitude. Stan is pretty good as the meek and pathetic Gillooly. Allison Janney is the big standout as Harding’s sociopathic mother. The acting is probably not the part that muddies the movie. In the end, it is hard to connect with these characters. The script and the director have chosen to create emotional distance between them and us by framing events in a specific way. As a result, Harding remains a figure that is difficult to connect with.