Margot Robbie shines as Tonya Harding
The biopic is a Hollywood hallmark, and like all hallmarks, it is rife with clichés: the lovable protagonist with whom you side, the uplifting ending and the agreeable supporting characters. A biopic lacking these elements is hard to find, and those without them are rarely successful. But “I, Tonya,” Craig Gillespie’s unorthodox portrayal of the life of American figure skater Tonya Harding, is a biopic that leaves all the typical boxes unchecked, making for a deliciously dark comedy.
If you are unfamiliar with the wild true story of Tonya Harding, some review is in order: In 1994, a thug bashed in Nancy Kerrigan’s (Harding’s ice-skating rival) leg with a retractable bat. Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband, had hired the thug. Tonya allegedly had prior knowledge of the plot. “I, Tonya” documents events from the very beginning of Harding’s short career to the aftermath of her trial.
Perhaps the greatest quality of “I, Tonya,” which stars Margot Robbie in the titular role of Tonya, is its radically paradoxical narrative. The film touts itself as a true story, but is told from multiple contradictory perspectives. You never know whom to believe, and viewers sympathize with different characters at various points throughout the film. Adding to the confusion, none of the characters are particularly good people. The film spends two hours following Harding’s abusive mother, LaVona (the Oscar-bound Allison Janney), abusive ex-husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and his henchman, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), and at the center of it all is Tonya Harding, who is not very kind herself. The fact that this movie works at any level is thanks to the performances of the cast. Robbie, who is most well-known for her role as Harley Quinn in the critically-panned comic book movie “Suicide Squad,” is surprisingly great as Harding. Her performance is seamless; not a moment in the film goes by in which Tonya Harding does not shine through. Robbie’s ability to toy with emotions is simply astonishing as she wins viewers’ love and then makes them hate her, only to fall in love all over again at the flip of a dime.
Bolstering Robbie’s performance are the superb turns from the supporting cast. Allison Janney’s tightrope act as the somehow endearing monster of a mother is worthy of praise. Sebastian Stan, who, like his co-star Robbie, is most well-known for his role in comic book films, gives a surprisingly strong performance as Jeff. However, while all the aforementioned performances are noteworthy in their own rights, none stand out as much as that of the film’s unsung hero, Paul Walter Hauser, who has been criminally ignored in this year’s awards season. Hauser’s performance as Shawn Eckhardt, Harding’s bumbling bodyguard, is among the greatest comedic performances of the century. There is not a single word that comes out of his mouth that fails to leave you in stitches.
This past week Oscar nominations were announced, and “I, Tonya” reaped three nominations, each of which was very well-deserved: Best Actress for Margot Robbie, Best Supporting Actress for Allison Janney and, finally, Best Film Editing. It would be giving too much away to detail the circumstances of the film’s final scene, which cross-cuts between various stages of Harding’s life. However, the editing of this scene cannot be left unmentioned. The scene is stunning and creates one of the greatest final shots of any film this year.
As great as this movie is, there are instances in which its comedic atmosphere can be jarring. For instance, moments of abuse that are depicted in the film are often played for laughs. While these scenes frequently portray Harding as a strong woman who fights back against her abusers, the content of these scenes is nevertheless troubling, and for obvious reason. In one scene where Tonya confronts her mother about the years of abuse she suffered at her hands only to storm away angrily, LaVona calls after her, “Spilled milk, baby.” Though it is a funny moment, the circumstances are far more heartbreaking than they are hilarious.
The uneasiness that “I, Tonya” provokes is obviously intentional. This is a complicated story, and our emotional response to it is not supposed to be simple. As we grapple with the motivations of each character, we never fully trust them. One moment in particular sums up this movie perfectly, when Harding remarks, “There’s no such thing as truth.”