Tonya Harding is arguably more famous for her scandals than her skating, though the two do go hand in hand. Amidst the chaos of the shot-to-the-knee heard ’round the world, Harding’s woe-filled, though highly irreverent tale went unnoticed. Being painted as the villain in a tabloid-fueled narrative will do that. Director Craig Gillespie’s fourth-wall breaking, pitch black character study I, TONYA, pivots the hero’s journey and gives the infamous femme fatale her deserved win.
The ripped-from-the-headlines Black List script, written by Steven Rogers, seeks to exonerate her trespasses, and in the process, cultivates a soaring sympathetic sting. The picture painted, based on the “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Harding and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly,” posits that Harding (played impeccably by Margot Robbie) was simply a product of a cruel environment. The cards were stacked against this unapologetic, unrepentant, unconventional anti-hero. There’s no way she could ever mature into the ice-rink princess the media and U.S. Figure Skating committee wanted her to be – nor should she apologize for not living up to those impossible standards. She was an American Dreamer, but society wasn’t about to let her dream.
Growing up under the glare of her foul-mouthed, abusive, ball-busting mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney, whose dry humor wins everything), Tonya Harding (played in younger years by McKenna Grace) was an ice skating prodigy. She honed her skills under the tutelage of soft-spoken, WASP-y coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), earning acclaim at a very young age. But success wasn’t going to come easy for Tonya. She’s surrounded by men consistently snuffing her fire: First her father (Jason Davis) bails on her and her mom. Her stepbrother “creepy Chris” assaults her. The seeming love of her life, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), physically abuses her, controlling her and stoking her inner rage. Finally Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), Jeff’s pal and her dimwitted “bodyguard,” puts the final nail in the proverbial coffin. Yet Tonya remains steadfast on her journey towards skating superstardom – even scoring some record-breaking triumphs. And then comes the fall, or “the incident” as they dub it: The assault on her Olympic competitor, Nancy Kerrigan.
Crushing her lit cigarette with her skate set to Vivaldi’s “Summer” Concerto says everything you need to know about the character without an ounce of exposition. She’s not about to try to fit into the stereotypical mold. She’s going to do it on her own terms – or so says the needle drop on her skate song, ZZ Top’s rock-n-roll stomper, “Sleeping Bag.” In fact, Gillespie utilizes music cues much like Paul Thomas Anderson (specifically in BOOGIE NIGHTS) and Martin Scorsese (in GOODFELLAS and CASINO), fusing the song’s powerful grip with the narrative momentum. There’s even a gumption-infused training montage that makes ROCKY IV jealous.
Tonally speaking, this is a close cousin to the satirical bent of TO DIE FOR and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. The rise and fall structure is similar in vibe to BOOGIE NIGHTS, but perhaps not as defined in tonal shifts like its cinematic inspiration. It’s much more fluid. Bumbling criminals are timeless fodder for dark comedy, and it works well here. The salacious details of real life pay off gloriously in this cinematic retelling. The confessional interviews are like those in TO DIE FOR, similarly borrowing narration techniques. Robbie’s narration over a few key points (like her triumphant triple axel display) recall a few of Kidman’s in Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece.
Outside of the crunchy, frizzy, frequently ponytailed hair, Robbie doesn’t look a thing like Tonya, yet her portrayal is uncanny. She captures the essence of Harding minus any mimicry. She’s a prowling panther, ferociously entertaining in this part, giving the sensational material an electric charge. It’s a seemingly-impossible challenge, but she adds layered depth to pop culture’s notorious bad girl. Her drive towards mainstream acceptance is made palpable in Robbie’s hands. It’s an enlightening moment when she asks a judge, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?” and later when she discovers her mom continuing to exploit her rather than empathize with her.
I, TONYA is one for the books. It skates away with the gold, righting some of the titular heroine’s wrongs. “When legend becomes fact, print the legend,” as they say. Tonya’s legendary deeds will now loom larger.
I, TONYA opens on December 8.