As a title, I, Tonya represents much more than a riff on I, Claudius, a deep-cut reference likely to sail over heads anyway. If it is to be good at the very least, this story of Tonya Harding’s meteoric rise and swift fall in figure skating demands substance and subtext. Otherwise, it’s little more than a two-hour SNL skit.
What I, Tonya does share with the recollections of a Roman emperor is a connection of being ostracized — Claudius for medical infirmities that suggested he couldn’t ever truly lead, Harding for her necessarily handmade and home-styled approach to a sport in which make-do is mercilessly mocked.
And by the end of this exhilarating, exhausting and excellently crafted film, we realize: Its title more deeply connects to sworn statements or solemn vows in which, sadly, many American women before and after Harding could fill in the blanks. They could share their own stories about the toxic byproducts of violence as love, the misogynistic and misanthropic brutality that muddles so much of modern life, and a craven disregard for common scruples amid which it matters little how high the junk piles up as long as it’s sufficiently shiny and distracting.
Like American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, writer Steven Rogers (no relation) and director Craig Gillespie trace a line from the mid-’90s to the scum-encrusted sociopolitical hellscape in which we presently find ourselves. Head-on and head-butting, I, Tonya addresses insidious issues of class, gender and willful delusion that curdle contemporary culture. It’s also caustically funny without asking you to laugh at its subjects. You wince instead at what they hath wrought, and a terrific cast led by Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney deftly walks that oh-so-high wire.
A Simpson connection is sensible, given that the infamous incident for which Harding is best known — her complicity in an attack that hobbled her closest competitor, Nancy Kerrigan — was a January tune-up to June 1994’s symphony of sensational spectacle. Acknowledging that this story is why people are there to watch the movie in the first place, I, Tonya instead begins earlier — with Harding’s entrance into competitive figure skating at the goading of her mother, LaVona Golden (Janney).
For LaVona, figure skating is not a positive outlet through which to hone Tonya’s competitive spirit into inspiration. It’s a path to single-mom martyrdom and to make Tonya a scapegoat for her many miseries. It’s also an easy way to hand carrots off to a coach (Julianne Nicholson) and wield the sticks on which her grip is more comfortable. Always attuned to the malaise gnawing at marginalized women, Janney persuasively embodies the way in which expectations that women cut each other down — even, and perhaps especially, if they share blood — is cultivated from cradle to grave. It’s the source of both a rivetingly rotten performance and a surface-level swipe otherwise atypical of this script. As my colleague Aly Caviness noted, this is perhaps where a woman’s creative input at some fundamental level could have led I, Tonya to an even more sobering, stinging thesis.
In that way, Rogers also eschews a deeper look at the subculture of figure skating and how, as it so briefly suggests, kinships form within an environment meant to place women behind glass in a combination of infantilized and sexualized performance. (One guesses a litigious minefield precluded speculation on Harding’s often-mentioned friendship with Kerrigan.)
Off the ice, Tonya is soon a teenager testing the limits of freedom from LaVona’s rule. Robbie’s resemblance to Harding may be minimal, and yet she inhabits her utterly from the first moment. You see her striving to think beyond the binaries of life established both by LaVona (“There are two types of people. Are you a flower or a gardener?”) and the cultural discourse (“The same way people either love America or aren’t a fan” as Bobby Cannavale’s cannibalistic media vulture puts it). You sense, in Robbie’s physicality during the many convincing skating sequences, that Tonya’s movement takes the shape of confessional exorcism rather than confident expression. You share Tonya’s hope that she’s getting right those unchaperoned introductions to romantic love with her eventual husband, Jeff Gillooly (Stan). And you feel her heart break when she’s unable to escape the cycle of mental and physical abuse with him and when she, like her mother, adapts it as her own, and only, tool for survival, with resentment and rage roiling underneath her surface.
Of this abuse — parental or spousal, delivered on or dispatched by Harding herself — I, Tonya lets LaVona, Tonya and Jeff have their say to assert or deny, often directly to the viewer. Nicolas Karakatsanis’s cinematography also purposefully evokes Michael Ballhaus’s work in GoodFellas, a sort of coked- and cranked-up chronology of events that led to Gillooly and Harding’s bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), orchestrating the attack against Kerrigan.
At almost the precise moment when the fourth-wall demolition and attention-calling camerawork seems too cute, their purposes reveal themselves. They detach these people’s actions and make them feel more dimwittedly distant from us, more criminally romanticized, more easily written-off. And the film is smart enough to turn the tables on us, making the camera represent our compulsion – swirling, stalking and seeking out some sort of lurid aspect of what’s really going on, tweaking our desire to be armchair cultural detectives. And the poofy-haired denials with which these characters address the audience feel no less chilling than the bald-faced lies emanating from today’s podiums and pulpits. There’s also an undercurrent of tenderness in how Karakatsanis and Gillespie deploy their tactics, letting bad juju recede and return in visual waves.
“There’s no such thing as truth,” Tonya says in actor-reenacted interviews around which the film is framed. “It’s bullshit. Everybody has their truth and life does whatever the fuck it wants.” Tonya’s accepted truth is that she does belong in figure skating, no matter what the judges and officials might tell her. What I, Tonya lacks in specific skating indictments, it makes up for in generally assailing sports as a carefully cultivated image game; after all, why rely on people to find touchstones in those who represent some of the daily pains they face in their own lives?
To that end, Tonya asserts that what happened to Kerrigan is “not her fault,” attempting to slip into the manner of free passes as her peers might … only without a prestigious name or money to back it up. This could have been Tonya’s way to prove an arrival — preferably skating, but settling for talking, her way out of suspicion or punishment. It’s here that the movie ties its thread to today’s diminishing value of facts over beliefs and suggests a tipping point of trash spectacle into exploitable opportunity — like painting cheap felt red and stringing it up as a velvet rope. And … well, just look at where we are now! Those going to I, Tonya merely to revisit the revelry of chortling at those “beneath” them will find their noses appropriately rubbed in it; then again, they may be too far gone to realize the joke is on them.
Ultimately, Tonya falls for the ruse of two-bit tailors whose promise of empress robes is far, far too good to be true. I, Tonya doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for Harding, but instead to understand her at a level beyond the complicit cruelty with which late-night comedians crushed her. Or in which so many rooted for her to fail, with bread-and-circus bloodlust, at Lillehammer. By the end, Robbie most resembles Harding as the ghoulish shell before the ultimate fall – beaten and dragged for our pleasure before a “redemption” of reality TV, boxing circuits and the like.
Robbie’s deathly appearance toward the end puts a fitting cap on a film that feels like an autopsy for a story in which no person died, but other intangibles of decency certainly wheezed their final breaths. Harding may assert that there is no such thing as truth, but there are a few certainties — and the final shot of one of 2017’s best films forces us to gaze both upon one of them … as well as our own response to it.