Film Review: I, Tonya (2017)
Oh, Tonya Tonya Tonya. Where do I even begin with this film.
For starters, the now Oscar-nominated Margot Robbie, who I had previously only known from About Time, Suicide Squad and The Wolf of Wall Street, has really proved her chops as a refined actor portraying the controversial figure skating legendary, Tonya Harding. Robbie, who is a glamorous actress, couldn’t be further removed from Harding’s image and somehow, she still manages to deliver a convincing performance on the screen while advocating for Harding behind the camera. I, Tonya isn’t necessarily a movie set up for heavy emotion, but I felt a pang in my chest when Robbie, as Harding, smeared makeup onto her face through choked tears and a forced smile. And even more convincing is Allison Janney as Harding’s decrepit and abusive mother, who made me hate her SO MUCH. As a whole, I would say all the acting in this film, including Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser as the two male dumbfucks, worked extremely well to deliver a stunningly controversial movie.
That being said, this movie was so difficult to watch. I was in it for the skating and the story, but I was immediately pulled out of it by the amount and level of domestic abuse shown in it. Maybe less than a quarter of the film was about the actual story, while the rest of it just felt like Margot Robbie getting beaten up scene after scene. It was rigid violence. I feared for her in every single scene. And I know that that was Craig Gillespie’s intention to coldly display the abuse so as to make the audience sympathetic to Harding, but I’m not sure how well that worked considering the audience I was with was cracking the fuck up over it. There is a way to achieve that sort of sympathy that Gillespie was going for without making the abuse the butt of the joke. Like maybe don’t put poppy fun music in the background? Maybe don’t make the real-life abuser Gillooly and his dumb sidekick into comical caricatures? And actually, cutting out even half of all the abuse shown in the movie would’ve made the film infinitely more tolerable. I understand why they went with this sort of semi-mockumentary style (it paid off in only one scene, imo) but it was also incredibly distracting.
I think what the movie suffered from the most, however, was probably its own confusion of what kind of story to tell. The movie was marketed as a sort of dark comedy, but was dark comedy the right genre for a story like this? Tonya Harding is a real, still-living person who really did go through those traumas and is still facing the real life after effects of living as a survivor of intense domestic abuse. If the film wanted to focus on delivering an empathetic message about domestic abuse through Harding’s story, I think it was only half-successful and at whose expense?
Other parts of I, Tonya I thought were interesting was how her class impacted her skating career, and that’s sort of where the Nancy Kerrigan bit comes in. In the movie and in real life, Harding and Kerrigan are set up as sort of class opposites - Harding being considered “trailer trash” with a mouth to match, and Kerrigan being this preppy, first-class gal (despite also coming from a blue collar background). In this scenario, I think the depiction of class and competition could’ve been more interesting if they went further with it, if they leaned more into the scenes with Harding making her own costumes and etc. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour did a great episode about I, Tonya and spoke more about the interesting dynamics of its class depiction, which you can find here.
Alas, the domestic abuse scenes overshadowed most of the film, including Harding’s great accomplishment of landing a triple axel in competition, just as the controversy of the clubbed knee overshadowed most of Harding’s career and life. She has remained the butt of plentiful clubbed knee jokes, and regardless of whether you believe she actually did it or not or even like her, one thing I will give to I, Tonya is that it made very visible the kinds of effects that intensely violent abuse may have on a person who is also restricted by poverty. You felt for Tonya and your heart broke for Tonya because you could see that in every situation, she had no way out. Once she escaped the cruel grasps of her mother, she was trapped in the devil hands of her husband, and skating was her only form of relief. And on that rink was where she could shine and express herself, only for the skating elite to reject her. And when the final skating ban comes down, it is devastating.
Go see I, Tonya if you want, but take a friend and have Disney’s Ice Princess ready to watch afterwards, because you’re gonna need it.