Published on January 17th, 2018 | by Craig Silliphant0
I, Tonya may not always stick the landing, but it’s a smart, thoughtful, energetic, well-acted and directed look at what really happened with Tonya Harding.
I still don’t believe that Tonya Harding had no prior knowledge of, and therefore culpability for, the attack on Nancy Kerrigan that captivated the world in 1994. But director Craig Gillespie’s new film, I, Tonya, does a good job of showing us something that we never bothered to consider before — that Tonya Harding was a human being. In our thirst for gossip and blood, during the genesis of the 24-hour news cycle, we dehumanized her for our entertainment.
Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were American teammates who were fighting to get on the Olympic team that would send them to the games in Lillehammer. Harding’s ex-husband and her bodyguard hired someone to attack Kerrigan, attempting to break her leg so she couldn’t compete, paving the way for Tonya. I, Tonya tells the story of this incident, but it also digs back into Tonya’s life and relationships to give us more context on the idea of nature versus nurture and more.
It started with a poverty-stricken, broken home, but if that weren’t enough to give Harding a certain worldview, the rampant abuse at the hands of her mother was the first step in teaching her that she would never deserve love, or that she would only find moments of solace if she took love in trade with stark violence.
This theme didn’t end with her childhood. Her stepbrother sexually assaulted her as part of her normal day. Even though her skating was some of the best out there, the skating judges treated her like she was trash, undeserving of what her talent was clearly saying. And her husband, Jeff Gillooly, furthered the idea that violence was a regular part of life and being loved. The movie shows us the Tonya we didn’t get to know when we were consumed with casting her as a villain.
I, Tonya often uses a Rashoman-style of telling of the story, with characters even breaking the 4th wall. They go as far as to comment on the truth of a given situation, saying things like, “This is bullshit. This didn’t happen,” techniques we’ve seen on The X-Files or in movies like To Die For. Sometimes this is brilliant and sometimes it feels too cute and overused in the film. Sometimes the movie suffers from biopic clichés, but these stylistic choices manage to subvert those traps with pinache. It brings the perfect amount of humour and energy to some of these stories that seem too insane to be true (most of them are true). It also does a good job of balancing the humour with the violence; I, Tonya doesn’t shy away from the depiction of domestic violence or the normalizing of abuse. In fact, sometimes the violence comes so lighting quick that it shocks you out of your seat like a rabbit punch to the face.
The movie sometimes feels like a conscious effort to be Scorsese, especially as it heats up, using music and editing to crank up the pacing and the violence, especially after ‘the incident,’ when things start moving very quickly for the characters. This could be a compliment or a complaint, depending on your opinion of borrowing obviously from the master filmmakers, but it is at least done well here. And the ‘knee’ incident itself, while being a short scene in the grand scope of things, is shot and edited with brow-mopping tension — even though you know how it all ends up.
There are several Olympic-sized performances here, especially from Margot Robbie, who is proving that she’s more than a pretty face. She takes you on a journey with Harding that really furthers the movie’s premise, that she is a real person with different facets to her personality. My only complaint might be that she is probably too beautiful and winning for the role. She succeeds in spite of that, making it her own. Allison Janney is a major scene-stealer as Tonya’s horrible mother. And Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser are excellent as the hapless idiots that created the whole mess.
Though I had slight issues, I commend the movie for juggling a lot of things deftly. It’s about the incident, Tonya herself, the nature of domestic violence, the fact that figure skating isn’t really about the skating, the nature of the truth, the 24-hour news cycle, and the fact that we, the public, could be considered Tonya Harding’s abusers as well. We made her into a punchline and a pariah.
As I said at the start, I don’t know if understanding Harding undoes the horrible thing she was party to (imagine how Kerrigan must feel about a re-imaging of Harding), but it at least makes a case for us having some sort of compassion as a society, instead of immediately reaching for the torches and pitchforks with huge grins on our faces.
She was a young woman who was caught up in something bigger than her and made mistakes. We all make mistakes, no matter what we think when we’re on our high horses or laughing at someone else’s misfortune. This story may have taken place 24 years ago with shows like Hard Copy, but we’ve made an industry out of shaming culture, between shows like TMZ, the intensification of the 24-hour news cycle, and social media shaming. We haven’t become enlightened since 1994. We’ve become professionals at dehumanizing. We create another Tonya Harding, sometimes weekly, and we chew them up and spit them out in a matter of days, before we’re on to the next pariah.