By Nathan Evans
I must admit I was looking forward to seeing ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ director Craig Gillespie’s ‘I, Tonya’. No, I’m not an ice skating enthusiast, I just have vague memories of the incident the film revolves around. It may be the first media scandal I remember being conscious of as a child.
The incident I’m referring to, and the subject of the film, is the assault against Olympic ice skater Nancy Kerrigan that found the young Olympian’s kneecap at the business end of a collapsable baton; hobbling her before a competition that would’ve seen her face off against the black sheep of the competitive figure skating world, Tonya Harding. ‘I, Tonya’ chronicles this incident, and the life that led up to it, through interviews that are based on real accounts from those involved. Margot Robbie portrays Tonya, Sebastian Stan steps in as Tonya’s abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, and Paul Walter Hauser plays Gillooly’s delusional best friend Shawn; the man ultimately responsible for the incident in question.
‘I, Tonya’ isn’t your standard biopic. Utilizing a wicked sense of humor, the aforementioned interviews, and characters that break the fourth wall throughout, Craig Gillespie does something truly unique and refreshing: he doesn’t give us a definitive account. Most biopics that revolve around sensitive subjects such as this tend to find a viewpoint and stick to it, Gillespie covers this subject from every principal character’s point of view, and while we get some sense of a singular narrative by the end, the devil is ultimately in the details, and those change depending on who you’re talking to.
While the unconventional narrative surrounding the pre-Olympic incident is a huge draw for the film, the film shines brightest when it focuses on Tonya’s upbringing. Though she’s mostly forgotten now, those that do remember her remember her as something of a social pariah; a desperate bully willing to do anything to get what she wants. Through the film’s chronicling of her life, we come to understand that’s not necessarily the truth, and that, by every account, she was an abused woman who fell in with some devastatingly cruel, stupid people. Something that may not have happened at all had she actually been raised with something even vaguely resembling affection from her exacting, malicious mother, Lavona Golden (portrayed here by the always excellent Allison Janney).
Screenwriter Steven Rogers’ script paints a sympathetic picture of Harding, but it’s Margot Robbie’s performance that does the heavy lifting. I’ve seen Robbie in several films at this point, and while I’ve never thought she was bad in anything, I wasn’t quite convinced that she was an actress of note. I’ve been unable to force myself to sit through the douche porn romp that is ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (the film that gave her her big break), she was blasted off the screen by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the under seen and underrated ‘Z for Zachariah’, and, well, you can go back through the Nerd on Film archives to see what I thought of her last major release in David Ayer’s ‘Suicide Squad’. This is the first film where I’ve seen her stretch as a performer, and she does one hell of a job. There’s a dialogue-less scene that involves her struggling to make her makeup work before a competition that is as depressing as it is hilarious. It’s great work, work that’s sure to garner her an Oscar nomination to compliment her Golden Globe nomination.
Sebastian Stan’s performance as Gillooly is almost equally revelatory. Though the Marvel Cinematic films Stan has found himself in are mostly excellent, his performance in them as Bucky Barnes falls on the sleepier end of the spectrum. While we got glimpses of what he could do with his small part in Steven Soderbergh’s fantastic flick ‘Logan Lucky’, here we really get a sense of his ability. While his character is nothing short of a bastard, Stan portrays that bastard convincingly; somehow managing to wring several moments of hilarity out of the film despite perpetrating frequent, traumatizing bouts of domestic violence.
‘I, Tonya’ is a unique, hilariously dark film that’s absorbing throughout, and the handful of complaints I have for the film amount to little more than nitpicks. There are one or two moments in the film that stretch reality a bit too much, and in certain spots the unreliable narrative can become frustrating. The extent of Tonya’s abuse at the hands of Gillooly come into question several times in the film, and while we pretty definitively know she didn’t have anything to do with hobbling Kerrigan, the extent of what she knew about the incident is never revealed.
On the technical side, the skating scenes themselves disappoint on occasion. While much of it is captured by a dynamic camera, there are many scenes that are assisted by some truly wonky and obvious CGI. While Tonya’s execution of the triple axel is an exception where the special effects purposefully draw attention to themselves for artistic license, many of the other scenes just look bad. It’s a move that does a disservice to Robbie who must’ve put in a lot of work learning how to skate.
As of this writing, ‘I, Tonya’ is only in limited release. My concern for the film is that it won’t find a mainstream audience. Craig Gillespie has delivered an unconventional account of someone many consider to be one of sports’ greatest villains, and it would be a shame for this film to slip through the cracks. If ‘I, Tonya’ is playing anywhere near you, I encourage you to seek it out now. If it isn’t, please make sure you catch it when it goes wide. It’s a film that’s not to be missed.
RATING: A -OR- 4.75 OUT OF 5
For more reviews and updates on all things Nerd on Film follow me on Twitter (@nerdonfilm) and like the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nerdonfilm/