Margot Robbie in I, Tonya (2017) (© 2017 - Neon / IMDB)

‘I, Tonya’: Sympathy for a Tabloid Villain

This biopic about ice skater Tonya Harding is a slashing, kickass comedy about class warfare, media manipulation, and one of history’s stupidest criminal conspiracies.

“This is bullshit. I never did this,” Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) assures viewers in the meta-comedy I, Tonya just after she is seen unloading a blast of buckshot at her fleeing husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Not that most of us would blame her. At that point, we already saw Jeff beat her for saying the wrong thing, or just for being there.

Before that, there was a long stretch of verbal and emotional abuse from LaVona (Allison Janney), Tonya’s cold-eyed villain of a mother. So this is somebody who had good reason to pick up a shotgun and let fly. Like Tonya says about the shotgun incident and later about the guy who in 1994 clubbed Nancy Kerrigan’s knee just days before Olympic trials: She didn’t do it. But, like Velma sings in Chicago‘s “Cell Block Tango”: “I didn’t do it / But if I’d done it / How could you tell me that I was wrong?

Despite hints to the contrary at its hyperkinetic start, I, Tonya does not have it both ways. Laying out Tonya’s working-class childhood and hardscrabble rise through the skating world, the movie initially comes off too willing to both mock its subject and critique the classism that accompanied her later media takedown. An on-screen note even assures us that the story is based on “irony-free” interviews.

Then right alongside having an older and seemingly present-day Tonya tell us that she “never apologized for growing up poor and being a redneck”, the movie plays one pop song after another to scenes of domestic violence. It’s a discordant and borderline tasteless combination, as though director Craig Gillespie is working overtime to add sparkle and fizz to this story at all costs. Then there’s that shotgun scene and a blink-and-you-missed-it moment shows Tonya beating Nancy like some horror-movie villain, blood spattered across her face in a scene that’s both tongue-in-cheek nod to Suicide Squad and a warning that this is not the kind of show we thought we were about to see.

But once I, Tonya settles in, it pivots to a more protective take on Tonya than expected. Robbie, who also produced, plays Tonya as a gangly and combative permanent adolescent, always banging in and out of rooms and forever breaking the unwritten rules of whatever contest she’s in. Stubbing out a cigarette with the blade of her skate, Tonya is an athlete who doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Having marinated for years under LaVona’s bullying domination and seething glare—she’s another of Janney’s patented character assassins—all Tonya knows is competition and endurance. LaVona’s “training” extends to paying strangers to shout “You suck! What is this, rednecks on ice!” just to juice Tonya’s streak of resentful competitive anger. All Tonya needs to win is the idea that somebody thinks she’s too trashy to deserve a medal.

This bulldog approach clashes with the skating world’s pretense as being a sport for aspiring princesses. Much is made of the insistence on performers wearing fur coats, as though they aren’t gangly teens whose parents mortgaged everything for a shot at (LaVona puts it) “Ice Capades or something” but Romanov heiresses moonlighting as athletes. Tonya’s big perm, braces, short temper, and predilection for pop music soundtracks instead of classical, go over like a lead balloon with the sniffy judges. This is a sports movie with the soul of a high school outsider story.

While following Tonya’s rough and clawing scrabble from one skating competition to the next—particularly the flashbulb scene at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Minneapolis when she lands skating’s first triple axel jump—the story circles back to the dysfunctional catastrophe of her marriage. Tonya and Jeff get on at first with a goony-eyed teenage exuberance. But their short fuses and his tendency to treat every disagreement as an invitation to a one-way boxing match turn the relationship into one more endurance test for Tonya. In the moralistic world of tabloid media that eventually swallowed the two of them whole, Jeff’s beating of Tonya became just one more way that she would be judged as a redneck cliché.

No matter the level of their interest in skating, everybody watching has one very good reason to know Tonya Harding’s name. Once the elements of the plan for attacking Kerrigan start clicking together, I, Tonya moves from meta-sports biopic to dark criminal comedy of the absurd. Assembled from bits and pieces of dramatized scenes and moments when present-day Jeff and Tonya talk straight to the camera, the attack on Kerrigan comes off like history’s worst criminal conspiracy.

Jeff and his delusional basement-dwelling buddy Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser, a study in somnolent superiority) turn Tonya’s off-hand joke about calling in a death threat into a grand conspiracy to take out her greatest threat. It’s like watching a game of telephone played by drunks who flunked out of preschool. As they bumble towards the event that will destroy Tonya’s life, the screenplay carefully parses her involvement, or seeming lack thereof, in the attack. It’s a take that won’t be familiar to Hard Copy devotees of the time, who cast her as the villainous redneck against the prim Kerrigan. The movie’s Tonya, while a little suspect in just how much she knew, undercuts the cat-fight narrative by presenting the two of them as roommates on the road who both grew up hard and liked to party when off the ice.

But clueless husbands, miscommunication, and lots of bad luck didn’t play in 1994 anymore than they do today. Though when delivered with this level of spit-take timing and keenly observed media satire, it can make one of the most slashing comedies about fame in the modern era since Gus Van Sant’s 1995 To Die For.

In one of her to-the-audience addresses, Tonya interrogates the whole reason for the movie itself:

“I was loved … for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punch line. It was like being abused all over again…. You’re all my attackers, too.”

We might be laughing. But we’re not off the hook, either. She knows why we’re here.

RATING 7 / 10