Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya” is a bizarre and stylish mix of black humor, social commentary, mockery and vindication. Its individual parts seem to resonate more than its sum total and, at times, you almost forget that you’re watching a tabloid tale played out on the big screen.
Based on what the film’s opening titles describe as “wildly contradictory” interviews with the real-life people involved, “I, Tonya” follows the rocky rise and ugly fall of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), whose career was derailed in the mid-1990s after she was connected to an assault on Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), one of her chief competitors.
Gillespie’s film spends plenty of time on “the incident,” as the leads call it, but not after providing some extensive background. We meet Tonya as a 4-year-old skating prodigy, toiling under the brutal wing of her profane mother LaVona (Allison Janney). LaVona is an incorrigible villain, abusing Tonya (both physically and verbally), her long-suffering coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) and most anyone else who crosses her path.
LaVona is such a villain that when a teenage Tonya first meets her future ex-husband and alleged co-conspirator Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), he practically comes off like a knight in shining armor.
Their budding relationship and eventual marriage is juxtaposed against Tonya’s rise in the skating ranks. The skater has ample talent, and her execution on the ice is indisputable — the film takes particular pains to celebrate Tonya’s status as the first U.S. woman to successfully perform a triple axel in competition. But Tonya learns over and over that it’s never “just about skating,” and her own abrasive nature consistently clashes against the graceful ladylike image the judges are looking for.
This all leads to the January 1994 attack on Kerrigan during the run-up to the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, portrayed here as a marvelously comic and incompetent hit job orchestrated by Gillooly and his loser best friend — and Tonya’s bodyguard — Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser).
Gillespie’s portrayal of the attack is surprisingly subtle in terms of its violence, especially compared to the physical abuse depicted throughout the film at the hands of LaVona and Gillooly. But even that violence feels muted by the dark comic context of the film, which draws its R rating mostly from the frequent profanity of its leads (especially Janney) and some sexual content and background strip club nudity.
Profane as it is, Janney’s performance as Tonya’s mother is the true standout here, followed at a modest by Hauser and other cast members. “I, Tonya” doesn’t go so far as to vindicate Tonya, but it strongly suggests that she is a product of an especially monstrous environment, and Janney’s interpretation of that environment is both comic and horrifying at the same time.
“I, Tonya’s” transparent use of those “wildly contradictory” interviews from the leads — recreated throughout the film to provide context and narration — also provides an interesting ambiguity to its “based on a true story” status. Exaggerated or not, thanks to its off-the-wall story and key performances, “I, Tonya” is highly entertaining, albeit in a kind of guilty, voyeuristic way. Just as with James Franco’s “Disaster Artist” from last year, “I, Tonya” has a way of sympathizing with its subject while simultaneously making fun of it.
If the film falls short anywhere, it is that the source material is just cynical enough to leave you feeling empty. Tonya is a train wreck that is interesting to watch, but unredeemed. Toward the end of the film, Robbie stares defiantly at the camera, portraying Tonya as she looks today, and accuses us all of being her attackers. She’s probably right; maybe “I, Tonya’s” point is that we should all feel guilty for being drawn to her story at all.
“I, Tonya” is rated R for pervasive language, violence and some sexual content/nudity; running time: 120 minutes.