“I, Tonya” explores the seedy underbelly of a sport you didn’t think had a seedy underbelly. A darkly humorous look at the defining moment of figure skater Tonya Harding’s career, it’s a tale of death threats, broken blades and attempted hobbling.
Margot Robbie is Harding, an elite athlete who sums up her career with, “I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punch line.” As a young child all she wanted to do was skate. A rink rat from age four, she began winning figure skating awards at a time when her friends were still learning cursive. Her embittered mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), the kind of person who stubs out her cigarette out in her mashed potatoes, is a punishing presence, pushing her relentlessly to be the best. “You’re not here to make friends,” she screeches when young Tonya pauses to say hello to a fellow skater. “That girl is your enemy.”
With the help of trainer Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) Harding rises through the ranks, developing an aggressive and athletic style that sees her out skate most of her competitors to become the first skater to complete a triple axel combination with the double toe loop. Trouble is, her homemade costumes, Trashy Tonya nickname and hair trigger temper are not accepted by the skating establishment. “You’re not the image we want to portray,” she’s told. “You’re representing our country and we want a wholesome American family.”
To even the playing field husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) hatches a plan to unnerve Tonya’s biggest threat on the ice—Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). What starts off as psychological warfare against a competitor snowballs into “The Incident,” a scandalous affair vaults Harding’s name into the headlines. On January 6, 1994, just six weeks before the Lillehammer Olympics, unbeknownst to Harding, a thug, hired by Gillooly’s friend and co-conspirator Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), broke Kerrigan’s knee as she walked through a corridor at Cobo Arena immediately after a practice session. “The Incident” made front page news and eventually saw Harding ousted from the sport she loved.
Director Craig Gillespie keeps the tone light and lively but presents Harding in a light never before seen. Framing her as an abused woman, first by her mother, then Gillooly and finally, devastatingly, by the press and the public—“You’re all my abusers,” she says directly to camera.—creates sympathy for a woman who has been widely vilified and mocked.
Robbie dons blue nail polish, perms her hair, chants her “It wasn’t my fault” mantra and hits a career high as the self-described redneck skater who had a shot at the big time. Bold and brassy, it’s a fourth wall breaking performance that could have slid into caricature but doesn’t. It’s a warts and all portrayal that doesn’t try and pull on your heart-strings or pander to easy theatrics. In Robbie’s hands Harding is still rough around the edges—“Nancy gets hit one time,” she complains, “and it’s life altering event.”—but “I, Tonya” looks beyond the Trashy Tonya image so often portrayed in the press to transform the punch line into a person.
In a movie full of showy roles Janney shines brightly. As the chain-smoking LaVona she’s a foulmouthed force of nature that belittles her daughter at every turn. “She skates better when she’s enraged,” she hacks. When its own style occasionally bogs the movie down Janney shows up like a bad penny to keep things interesting.
“I, Tonya” is “based on irony free, often contradictory interviews” with the main players in Harding’s life. As a result it’s messy, but this is a messy story about a woman who paid a heavy price for daring to be herself. Not conforming cost her everything but you get a sense, by the end of the film, it’s a price she was willing to pay.