Like Its Subject, "I, Tonya" Is Both Captivating And Confused

Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding was a dying star the moment she hit the national scene. The high school dropout from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks in Portland, Oregon arrived as the perfect villain for the primly proper figure skating world, fated to be the sport’s Harvey Dent – used up and summarily sacrificed to the media gods. Nevertheless, Harding had a hand in her own undoing.

Even Craig Gillespie’s reality-adjacent film “I, Tonya” concedes that the triple axel trailblazer used her ex-husband and alleged abuser Jeff Gillooly to feign a sense of familial normalcy in an attempt to placate the sport’s snooty judges. Harding finally had a clean break from the man who purportedly made her life a living hell. And then she took him back, unknowingly setting into motion the event that would end her career.

The question at the center of “I, Tonya” – whether Harding deserves to be defined by her accomplishments in the face of impossibly long odds (poverty and abuse defined her life for decades) or written off as possible accomplice in the unthinkable attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan – is a compelling one. Frustratingly, but appropriately, it’s left unanswered.

Largely based on contradictory interviews from Harding (played here by Margot Robbie) and Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Steven Rogers’ screenplay is half biography, half recreation of the events surrounding the moment Kerrigan was struck above the knee with a tactical baton. Gillespie begins with a faux-documentary style akin to Richard Linklater’s superior “Bernie,” then crossfades into a traditional narrative feature wherein the characters occasionally break the fourth wall. This approach is neither here nor there; the pic’s successes and failures ultimately come down to the marriage between script and cast.

The film’s first hour is all overacted biopic (Allison Janney turns scenery into projectiles as LaVona Golden, Tonya’s cruel stage mother), rife with bad digital face replacement during the skating scenes and a startling imbalance of tone. One minute we’re in the late 1980s and Gillooly is beating Harding to a pulp, the next minute we’re in the present day in talking head mode with Ms. Golden cracking wise about the pet parrot perched on her shoulder. Audience whiplash is likely; neither writer nor director have any apparent desire to make their story congeal – only to impart it in pithy, bite-sized chinks.

But then the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Olympics come along, the Kerrigan incident comes into focus, and the film lands a triple axel of its own. It spins into something that plays like a stand-alone episode of FX’s “Fargo,” only instead of small-town police it’s about the most infamous happening in figure skating history. Largely unknown actor Paul Walter Hauser nicks the back half of “I, Tonya” as portly Gillooly goon and Harding bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt. The character takes center stage as the mastermind of the Kerrigan attack and Hauser shines, earning some enormous laughs that are safely removed from the specter of domestic abuse that haunts the rest of the picture.

There is, of course, nothing funny about the attack on Kerrigan, but the circumstances are so odd, so preposterous that it takes on a life of its own. Harding’s involvement (or non-involvement, as the film posits) becomes immaterial. Harding v. Kerrigan is an incredible story in its own right. The film’s sideshow becomes its main attraction. We’re hooked.

Remarkably enough, this is where Margot Robbie’s performance really breaks through. Gone are the chains of biopic tropes (she and Stan are utterly unconvincing as teenagers early in the film), disappeared is the shadow of Janney’s histrionics. Perhaps that’s the point. Here in the story Harding gains agency and our sympathy only to be finally and fully constricted by her circumstances; a hard-earned career gone up in the puff of a Marlboro. What begins as a prosaic performance from Robbie ends up an impressive physical one, suggesting that she’s only getting started as a performer.

If “I, Tonya” is confused – it unusually shifts its focus off its subject at the halfway mark – it’s only as confused as its title character. Tonya Harding was and is nothing if not an uneven personality. The movie that bears her name is the same way, too lopsided to elicit the degree of sympathy it’s aiming for – the scenes of abuse are weirdly bookended by David O. Russell-style comedy – but it builds to the point of dramatic success.

The Kerrigan incident may not define Harding, but in the movie, as in reality, it may be the best way of understanding her star-crossed life.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 8, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Neon
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriter: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity)