Never an angel but definitely fallen, Tonya Harding receives belated dignity in the year’s most provocative biopic.
Not the movie the notorious ice-skating flameout Tonya Harding probably deserves—but happily (for us) the one she’s gotten—I, Tonya is a dazzlingly complex and exuberant treatment of a disgraced figure. It flies along like Goodfellas: Director Craig Gillespie never passes up the chance to needle-drop on an instant-’80s pop song (from Supertramp, ZZ Top, etc.) or break the fourth wall with an into-the-lens confession. But as with Martin Scorsese’s “I always wanted to be a gangster” crime epic (or more aptly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights), the combination of supercharged style with so tawdry a story creates an unshakable tension, the kind that has you laughing and cringing at the same time. Ultimately, I, Tonya feels like a major reclamation, not of Harding’s reputation but of the sports biopic itself, fallen into clichés since Raging Bull.
Setting the tone with a surly, confrontational stare and her fuming lit cigarette, Margot Robbie—making the most of this gift of a role—drops the film into the touchy realm of paranoia and class warfare. She refuses to be judged in the film’s series of faux interviews, and even as Steven Rogers’s satisfying script sends us backward in time to the angelic young Tonya (Gifted’s Mckenna Grace) twirling on the ice, we’re never far from a scene in which money is the film’s not-so-secret subject. Her Oregonian mother, the raging LaVona (a revelatory Allison Janney, swearing up a storm), constantly browbeats her daughter about the cost of her skating lessons. (This becomes more than browbeating soon enough.) Dad skips out for good, and abandonment swirls with the snubs and bruises that will define the older Tonya’s resentment and competitiveness—like a blond, triple-axeling Richard Nixon.
Robbie is superb in her moments on the ice, alternately gleaming and glaring at the officials who can’t stand this foul-mouthed outsider upturning their conceptions of the perfect princess. But she’s even better in the film’s depiction of her home life, strained by her marriage to an even needier person, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, emerging from under the lame moustache with ace timing); the two of them repeat learned patterns of abuse. I, Tonya crams so much broken psychology into its framework, it’s almost a miracle that the plot gets around to emphasizing Harding’s undeniable athletic ability, lost in the shadow of the unavoidable “incident.”
And what about Nancy? Kerrigan is barely seen, apart from that immortal postattack “Why?” clip, and it’s a masterstroke, forcibly shifting our allegiances to an unlikely antihero. I, Tonya is slippery on Harding’s own culpability; we meet several lunkheads, all of them entertainingly unsuited to pulling off any kind of crime, much less keeping their botched handiwork a secret. But that’s not the essence here. As camera trucks amass outside Harding’s house, we’re given an inside perspective into the dawning of a new kind of news story, pre-O.J., located at the nexus of fame, ambition and schadenfreude. Destroyed yet defiant, Robbie walks the emotional tightrope of the most fabulously, tragically American film of the year.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew