Directed by Craig Gillespie | Written by Steven Rogers | 120 min
I was never one of those folks who believed Raging Bull was one of the greatest films ever. But if you read film criticism in the 90’s, that picture was often thrown out as one of the best ever, up there with Citizen Kane and The Godfather as cinematic genius. While I questioned some of those assumptions, as a sports movie, I could see how important it was. It demystified a beloved athlete, showed him at his ugliest, and eventually humanized him. Rumour has it, it even taught the late Jake LaMotta a thing or two about himself.
I, Tonya is the Raging Bull of figure-skating movies. It’s a powerful, moving piece about the tough life of an infamous skater, and how she fought hard to better her circumstances and to be the best in the world. I’m not sure she ever quite got there—she was sidelined by scandal and stupidity—but once upon a time she attracted the attention of the world and competed at the highest level.
Margot Robbie—also on board as producer—is Tonya Harding. She’s a piece of work, the product of a broken Oregonian home and an abusive, managerial mother, LaVona (Golden Globe-winner Allison Janney delivering a monstrous performance). We see her from a “soft” 4-years-old, when she gets on the ice and just won’t stop. Then we jump to her teen years—27-year-old Robbie can convincingly pass for early 20s, but 15 is a real stretch—when Harding meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, solid), and marries the guy, even though he beats her bruised and bloody. She grew up with violence—her mother even stabs her at one point—so that’s all she knows. It’s how she metabolizes love.
The first half of the picture sets the stage, combining to-the-camera interviews, purported to be from actual transcripts, with scenes from Harding’s miserable marriage, and her struggles and successes as a skater. We get the redneck lifestyle, the snobs down at the rink who want a different image from skaters than Harding was bringing, and the repeated scenes of abuse, sometimes with Harding breaking the fourth wall right in the middle of it—all delivered with a mixture of drama, pain, and foul-mouthed humour.
All this, finally, leads to the strong second half, and “the incident,” the reason Harding became so famous outside her sport. (For those who don’t know, her then-ex-husband, Gillooly, and her bodyguard, hired a couple of guys to do something bad to Harding’s primary on-ice competition, Nancy Kerrigan.) In the end we are all implicated in the shit-show, because we all watched. In some ways, this is an American dramatized companion to Amy, the Amy Winehouse documentary.
I can’t quite believe I’m writing this, but I loved these terrible, venal, idiotic characters. Despite their complete absence of class, and, in some cases, brains—Paul Walter Hauser as the bodyguard is especially good delivering a special kind of desperate idiot—their vulnerabilities are all too human while their dreams are writ large. The script and performances are so bang on, I couldn’t help but be carried away by it all. It’s an American story of ambition and ugliness framed by a popular spectator sport, just like Raging Bull. A nod to Julianne Nicholson and Bobby Cannavale for their excellent support—Cannavale seems to reincarnate Dennis Farina in a small role here, and it’s great to see.
Director Gillespie, who’s lucky to still be working after his last, terrible film, The Finest Hours, brings all this together with enough wit and engineering to make it a frequent surprise—though it’s hard not to think about what filmmakers like the Coen’s would have made of this material. I’ll especially credit Gillespie with the excellent on-ice footage. Certainly Robbie’s face must’ve been composited onto someone else’s body for much of it, but the effects, and the lutzes, deliver.