Overview: From “redneck” childhood to Olympic near-glory and then on to infamy, this is the story of a life bigger and more cutting than any hack punchline. 2017; Rated R; Clubhouse Pictures;119 minutes.
Full 90s: I, Tonya opens with a statement that its story is based on “irony free, wildly contradictory” interviews with the real people involved in the events depicted in the film. What initially reads as qualifying—in other words, be warned you might not be getting the full truth—instead quickly becomes a promise as you’re introduced to the principals. By the time you realize someone (possibly many people) are lying, you’re having too much fun to care. Here in New York, the film opened the day after the novelist William Gass died. It felt fitting that the man who coined the phrase “metafiction” would be on my mind the day I sat down to watch I, Tonya. Gass described metafiction as self-conscious narrative; storytelling that references itself as a means of bringing new, or deeper meaning to the text. The story told in I, Tonya is ostensibly a true one (though who really knows, man), but in constructing a filmic world without the expected boundaries, director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) gives his characters free rein to jump from comedy to pathos and back and forth through the fourth wall at will. And it makes for an exciting ride.
Remember Fun?: I never read reviews of a movie before I sit down to write mine, but sitting in the theater I had a hunch that I wasn’t the only one thinking of the same two movies as I watched I, Tonya. I was right; everybody else was seeing the fingerprints of Fargo and Goodfellas all over this. I, Tonya’s frank approach to domestic violence—in this case between both Tonya and her mother, and between Tonya and her husband—has caught some flak for playing violence for laughs (as some were troubled by with Fargo). And while Goodfellas is one of the most-referenced fourth wall-breaking movies ever, this one—whether the metric is number of occurrences or ability to pull off the trick—has it beat. And while Scorcese nor, here, Gillespie, never misses an opportunity to work in a mood-setting musical cue, it somehow manages to feel jubilant instead of manipulative. I’ve never loved ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag” more than watching a magnetic Margot Robbie as Tonya agro-skate her way to gold at the 1991 Nationals, and I already loved that song a lot. In fact, while Harding did use that song in her routines, it was a liberty taken by Gillespie; Harding actually won gold in ’91 skating to Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” while becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel in an amateur competition. While there are comparisons to be made between I, Tonya and those two films, they’re positive ones, because each is a high in its own right.
“I was loved for a minute”: But where there are highs, there must be lows, and I, Tonya doesn’t shy away from them. You might suspect that the film centers on “the incident” with Nancy Kerrigan as it’s described here, but instead it takes its time getting there. We follow Tonya from a tough childhood (made all the more difficult by her relationship with her emotionally and physically abusive mother, LaVona (played to perfection by Allison Janey whose get-up here will, I suspect, unseat Grey Gardens’ Little Edie for go-to film nerd Halloween costume). Janney is as close to maternal as a psych experiment wire monkey mother, yet through a performance that toes the line between humorous and cruel, LaVona manages to be a strangely sympathetic character and, like Tonya, we find ourselves giving her chance after chance she doesn’t deserve. Robbie is an unlikely Tonya, nearly a half foot taller and much wirier than Harding ever was, but what she lacks in physical resemblance, she more than makes up for in pitch-perfect mannerisms. The first time the camera cut away from Robbie speaking onscreen, I could “hear” her as Tonya for the first time. It must be a difficult thing to effectively portray someone as physically dominant and emotionally unflinching as Tonya, yet to introduce the kind of love-seeking vulnerability that Robbie does here so beautifully, and her performance feels like a star-making one. Her wildly co-dependent relationship with Jeff Gillooly (a solid Sebastian Stan) is as frustrating as it is frightening, and it’s this toxic affection that set in motion the misguided attack on Kerrigan. And it’s in finally discussing “the incident,” that Harding, in words voiced through Robbie staring directly at the camera, implicates us as viewers for our role in her torment. She’s right; we’ve cheered for her and mocked her. But by the end of I, Tonya, we can’t help but feel a kinship with her. Everybody loves an underdog. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves, though the truth may be wildly contradictory.
Overall: I, Tonya is a funny, self-aware look at the life of America’s never-quite-sweetheart will make you re-examine a story you thought you knew.