Movie Review – I, Tonya
This film exists on a continuum of recent films about real-life, infamous people. The most recent, previous example is Tom Cruise in American Made, which came out earlier this year. Yet, that film was also in line with things like The Big Short (2015) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). These films take a character who has done something bad or even criminal and turn their stories into comedies or make their exploits comical. This movie is different because not a lot of these kinds of films involve or have a woman as the protagonist. It’s also different in that most of these movies show off how clever or smart the protagonist is in evading the authorities. This movie draws a lot of its comedy from how dumb the criminality is here. Whereas the men in those other films are clearly culpable in their crimes, here the movie isn’t clear about the woman’s culpability. It perhaps argues that she’s not culpable at all. She does play a hand in the criminality, but the movie attempts to explain why and let her off the hook in many ways. This movie, despite its protagonist being a bit abrasive, wants you to favor her, at least more than we should the men in The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short.
Written by Steven Rogers (Hope Floats and Stepmom), this movie is based on interviews about the 1994 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Specifically, it’s based on interviews with five people and those five people are not on the side of Kerrigan. The attack on Kerrigan was designed to disadvantage her, so that she couldn’t compete at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. The attack was not only designed to disadvantage Kerrigan, but it was also meant to clear a path for fellow figure skater Tonya Harding. In fact, the police investigated that Harding and her husband, Jeff Gillooly were the masterminds behind the attack. Yet, the interviews that are the basis of this movie aren’t interviews of the police. They are of Harding herself, her husband, her mother, her skating coach and her bodyguard. That right there should indicate how biased this film is, but what’s funny is that even among the people on Harding’s side, not all of them even agree on what’s true and what’s not.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girland Fright Night), this movie is not only based on these interviews, but it also recreates the interviews themselves. Each of the various people sit and speak directly to the camera and like in the recent The Disaster Artist, Gillespie has his actors repeat exactly what was said on videotape. Each interview is hilarious by itself but when the real interviews are shown at the end, it’s even more hilarious. Gillespie throws in some meta moments and some exaggerations that make them even more funny.
Of course, this is a movie about figure skating, a popular Olympic sport. Therefore, this movie could be considered a sports film, one not unlike Rocky (1976). This movie certainly references that Sylvester Stallone film. Yet, in many ways, this is the anti-Rocky. This is the third film this year about a female athlete after Battle of the Sexes and Molly’s Game. It’s the second film this year about a former female Olympian after Molly’s Game. Between those two, this movie is closer to Molly’s Game in that it exposes how a woman can be brought down by the relationships she has with tough parents and men who mistreat or abuse. It’s less an inspirational tale but more of a cautionary one.
Yet, it still takes time to celebrate the sport. The most glorious moments are when it’s capturing figure skating. The camera goes onto the ice rink and Gillespie doesn’t do what some might and that’s imitate how broadcast television chooses to depict the sport. Instead, the camera skates with the protagonist on the ice. The camera skates with her. The signature move is the Triple Axel, but figure skating involves a lot of other kind of twirling, and the camera isn’t shy about it. The camera twirls as she does. It twirls with her. It’s exciting and engaging. It pulls the audience in and it’s effective enough to exhilarate us about the sport as much as the protagonist is exhilarated by it.
Margot Robbie (Focus and The Wolf of Wall Short) stars as Tonya Harding, the figure skater from Portland, Oregon. She’s a self-proclaimed redneck. She grew up chopping wood and hunting rabbits with her father. She learned how to fix cars from her father as well. She wants to be a great skater, but the sport is determined by judges and she can never score with them because they think she’s just trailer trash. It’s through Tonya we learn the flaw with the sport in certain regards. It’s more about appearances than actual athletics, which is how classism comes into play. If one comes from wealth, than they are more likely to succeed.
Allison Janney (Mom and The West Wing) co-stars as LaVona Golden, the mother to Tonya. She works as a waitress. She separates from Tonya’s father and raises Tonya all alone, paying for her skating lessons and stitching together outfits for her as best she can. She’s not one to hold her tongue. She curses. She also is not one to hold back her liquor. She’s boozing. It’s no question that she’s also very abusive. She definitely comes out of the school of extreme tough love. She’s comparable to J.K. Simmons’ character in Whiplash (2014).
Sebastian Stan (The Martian and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) also co-stars as Jeff Gillooly, the love interest of Tonya. He’s not the greatest guy. The warning might be the mustache, but Stan has such an adorable quality to him though that can swing from lovable puppy dog to vicious rottweiler.
Julianne Nicholson (Black Mass and August: Osage County) plays Diane Rawlinson who represents heart, stability and reason in the cacophony that surrounds this story. Paul Walter Hauser (Kingdom) plays Shawn Eckhardt, the aforementioned bodyguard and supreme idiot. Bobby Cannavale (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Ant-Man) rounds out the cast as an unnamed TV producer who provides a somewhat objective view of the situation. All of them give incredible performances and help make this film one of the best of the year.
Rated R for language, violence and sexuality, including nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.
In Select Theaters.
In More Theaters through January 2018.