I, Tonya is what you get when you mix The Wolf of Wall Street, a skating melodrama like The Cutting Edge and a ’90s Movie of the Week capitalizing on whatever salacious scandal du jour was dominating the news networks at the time. Screenwriter Steven Rogers and director David Gillespie get an “A” for effort as far as their brave attempt to meld these wildly differing tones into a cohesive narrative, but their execution, as satisfying as it might be, too obviously reaches for a pedigree it hasn’t yet earned.
On the surface, I, Tonya is a pretty straightforward biopic about the infamous Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), chronologically retelling her life story, from her struggle to be taken seriously as one of the best skaters in the world despite being clearly discriminated against by the Olympic higher-ups for being “white trash,” to the obvious meat of the story: the heinous attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan’s (Caitlin Carver) knee and how the crazy media circus aftermath that followed affected her life and career. The unconventional and fairly effective style Gillespie applies to this story finds a delicate balance between the kinetically edited, multiple-narrator (see: Goodfellas) approach and the snarky ironic detachment of a modern mockumentary.
We’re told very early on that whatever “truth” the film lays on us should be taken with a grain of salt. The whole story is told from the point-of-view of Tonya, her family and her accomplices, intercut between interview sequences that take great care in recreating the setup of some real interviews (right down to the odd placement of a pet bird), and a conventional biopic aesthetic occasionally breaking the fourth wall to let us into the characters’ inner monologue regarding whether or not what we’re watching really did take place. Audiences looking for an objective examination, especially one which seeks Kerrigan’s side of the story, should look elsewhere.
Rogers and Gillespie create a Shakespearean tragedy, drawing a line from Tonya’s abusive childhood to the decisions that destroyed her career. Her deadpan mother, Lavona (Allison Janney), confuses being an affectionless and bitter parental figure with tough love, while her deadbeat husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), believes that the key to getting your spouse to fall further in love with you is to beat the shit out of her on a regular basis. Tonya’s only escape from her dreadful life is figure skating, yet even there she can’t let her guard down since she’s constantly scrutinized for her aforementioned “white trash” image, no matter how objectively talented she might be.
Gillespie’s playful tonal approach conflicts with his narrative’s attempt to derive deep drama and empathy out of its protagonist, but that’s where Robbie’s intensely dedicated performance shines, injecting three dimensions into a character who comes across one-dimensionally on paper, hers a typical case of “plucky underdog shows the world how valuable she is through hard work and dedication” kind of verve. As suspicious as Tonya’s version of her involvement in the Kerrigan incident might be, Robbie at least allows us to understand her character’s motivations every step of the way. Yet the strength of the film’s central performance also becomes part of its undoing. Perhaps enamored with Robbie’s take on the character, Gillespie takes it a bit too easy on Tonya: He has no qualms about ridiculing her larger-than-life family members, but portrays Tonya as an innocent victim, which turns out to be a lopsided, even dull take on this fascinating tale.
Assorted technical issues abound. Rogers’ screenplay is a oddly paced, spending too much time on episodic sequences that depict Tonya repeatedly leaving her husband and getting back together with him, while pushing the Kerrigan plot, the inciting incident of the story, to the tail end of the second act. Meanwhile, the CG used to convince the audience that Robbie is pulling off some complicated skating moves is wonky at best. Robbie barely had any skating experience and had to undergo rigorous training when she took the role. Of course that doesn’t mean she was ready to pull off a triple axel, so her face is superimposed on a stunt skater. We’re supposed to feel awestruck by Tonya’s performance on ice—and, too, by the film’s all around strong performances and its inventive aesthetic structure—not wince at what really could have been.
Director: David Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Caitlin Carver, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser
Release Date: December 8, 2017