‘I, Tonya’ is fearless, ferocious and very funny.1/31/2018
“America. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate …
There’s no such thing as truth. I mean it’s bullshit!” —Tonya Harding
Kids today are often told they can do anything or be anyone. But not too long ago, they were told they had best toe the line and try not to make waves. Tonya Harding comes from the latter, but dreamed of being the former.
“I, Tonya” is the story of Harding’s (Margot Robbie) tumultuous rise to stardom and her fall from grace. The film unfolds as told from the perspective of the skater and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) years after the “incident.” This dramatized documentary mixes in some dark comedy and bounces between scenes portraying the abuse endured by Harding, to rabbit hunting, verbal assaults and intense training at the ice skating rink.
Interspersed throughout the movie’s main framework are mock interviews and scenes where characters playfully break the fourth wall.
“This didn’t happen,” Harding tells the camera after shooting a shotgun at her former husband, demonstrating the unreliability of the film’s various narrators. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be trusted.
Edgy humor encases this cautionary tale of human cruelty. The film offers insight as to the effect that various upbringings can have on a person. The people we associate with can either bring benefit to our lives, or they can be a curse to it.
Abuse seems to define Harding, and everything that happens to her stems from its source. Her mother beat and belittled her throughout her life. Her (ex-) husband continued the tradition. Nothing she accomplishes is enough to satisfy anyone. Viewers will find it hard to blame Harding for her anger after witnessing the abusive behavior of the people who were supposed to love and protect her. Numerous scenes reveal the skater applying makeup to cover bruises and scars. The fact that she maintained a rigorous training schedule and made it to competitions is a testament to her fortitude and grit.
Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), is perpetrator — and motivator—of most of the abuse in her life. She treats her daughter like a burden. Combined with corporal punishment in the form of slaps, pushing, thrown objects, and a knife to the arm, it becomes clear this movie may be making a point that is less about telling another side of “the incident” story and more about how tensions became so bad “the incident” was ever conceived in the first place. Janney simultaneously makes you love and hate (and love to hate) the character and how self-assured she is in all of her decisions. It’s abuse — but with motivation sprinkled in.
“I, Tonya” is funny the same way the stone laughs at Sisyphus or God at Job. Comedy setups are delivered at a lightning pace while the punchlines smack you in the face out of the blue. With a similar sense of dread comparable to the laugh track scene in “Natural Born Killers,” the comedic punchlines land actual punches.
Does the punishment fit the crime? It’s hard to say. But after watching this film, the answer seems obvious: No. As the movie notes, the collective memory of this moment is foggy at best. Some remember Gillooly as the hammer-wielding psycho who attacked Nancy Kerrigan. Others say Shawn the bodyguard led a group of guys. And still others have a vivid memory of Harding herself beating the blood-curdling cry, “Why?” out of Nancy.
The truth is that none of these are true. The assault was done by a couple of guys — that on any other day couldn’t have picked Nancy Kerrigan out of a crowd — who were paid by Jeff and Shawn-the-bodyguard. And the punishment? A quick 18-month incarceration that was served in less.
“The whole ‘incident’ only lasted — from start to finish — about eight months total,” says Gillooly.
As for Harding — on top of the fines she would never be able to pay — she was also banned from any and all involvement in U.S. figure skating… for life. Whether or not you liked her, it’s hard not to feel that Harding was hosed.
“I was loved for a minute, and then I was hated, and then I was a punchline forever,” says an older and wiser Harding while reflecting on her skating career. ♦