The more I think about I, Tonya, the more I love it. It’s stuffed with great acting, excellent writing and directing. I keep thinking of layers of meaning to the story, its historical context, and the artistic interpretation of those things. It takes some incredibly dark material, and uses brilliant pacing and comedic timing to race the viewer through a chaotic timeline and a perfect storm of shitty, stupid people. It makes Tonya Harding into a sympathetic figure, an abused child who matured into an abused wife while locked into the utterly bizarre world of professional figure skating.
It’s hilarious. Horrifying, probably very difficult or impossible to watch for a lot of abuse survivors, but it’s a hell of a story and I would have found it hard to digest without the humor. There’s an amusingly pissy disclaimer at the beginning of the film that states the the story is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” It shows Gillooly adamantly denying the claims that he beat her, but follows each denial up immediately with a montage of slaps, punches, shoves, bruises, and one kidnapping with a gun. It’s a very, “Oh, yeah, asshole?” refusal to take this abusive prick’s bullshit seriously, and I found it refreshing.
The late 80’s and early 90’s are meticulously recreated. Old people with rotary phones attached to the wall, the unreasonable behavior of the tabloid press on everyone’s lawns, the magnificent collection of scrunchies that adorned skaters’ hair.
They CGI’d Margot Robbie’s face onto her body double, and it is seemless. You really cannot tell that that isn’t Robbie out there figure skating. Their FX team should have gotten a nomination for their work. It isn’t flashy and you don’t know it’s there and that’s an incredible victory for CGI.
The performances are excellent. Margot Robbie is good. Allison Janney transformed into LaVona, Tonya Harding’s chain smoking mother is amazing. And Sebastian Stan as her shithead husband is also a fantastic performance.
And there’s Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn, the idiot best friend of the shithead husband who, by all accounts, destroyed Tonya Harding’s career in his delusions of being her ‘body guard.’ He was one of the funniest parts of the film, and also one of the most horrifying. There is real video of the real Shawn claiming to be an international intelligence expert and a consultant to “many” different private intelligence agencies, and a reporter telling him that that isn’t true, they checked. And he just keeps bullshitting that he really is some kind of spy.
Part of me wants to read up on the Shawn part of the story, because it’s a sort of disturbing foreshadowing of what the fuck happened to the United States in the last 30 years. This bozo is confronted with facts, over and over, that contradict every single thing he has said on-record, and he keeps insisting that his story is true. In the version of events presented in I, Tonya, he acts independently of everyone else and upgrades a simple prank to a physical assault, thus destroying Tonya Harding’s entire life. And, in this version of events, his motivation for doing that was tied to his delusions about being a spy. I’d say it’s one of the most bizarrely ridiculous things to happen in decades, except we have the internet to document things now and the real significance of that event was that it was on national television before the internet.
And there are yet more layers to this fantastic movie, because there’s also lots of class consciousness commentary. It feels more authentic than on-the-nose, because a takes-no-shit sort of girl from a working class family would absolutely be pissed about how she is treated differently in the figure skating world than girls from better economic situations. The fur coat solution was one of the funniest things in the whole movie. Her coach keeps telling her waitress mom that Tonya needs a fur coat to fit in with the other girls and have the right look so the coaches won’t be biased against her being poor. So Tonya’s daddy takes her rabbit hunting, and they make her a damn coat. She walks in to practice, one of the girls asks, “what kind of fur is that,” and 8-year-old Tonya just struts on past.
The number of things that scene hits on, it’s brilliant writing and directing. It sets up the shit she had to deal with in figure skating culture, how being poor complicated things, explores her relationships with each parent, and establishes her character as a person who will always find a way to get what she needs.
I, Tonya is a brilliant, many layered movie full excellent writing, acting, and directing. I hope it wins lots of awards.