****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT. See it in the theatre or at the very least on Netflix/cable.
I, Tonya, written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, is the biographical story of infamous American Olympic figure-skater Tonya Harding. The film stars Margot Robbie as Harding with supporting turns from Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan and Juliette Nicholson.
Bio-pics are notoriously hard to make with any sort of artistic originality. They usually fall into the same trap of simply showing the main events in the protagonists life so everyone can go, "oh yeah, I remember that", and then the movie is over and no one cares or learns anything they didn't already know. What is worse is that these films are usually a cinematic exercise in the dramatically mundane, with nary a daring or artistic vision to be found.
Well, if you are looking for a bio-pic with some cinematic flair, I, Tonya is the movie for you. I, Tonya avoids all of the well-worn traps of the bio-pic by utilizing multiple perspectives and shamelessly embracing the idea that not only is it impossible for all of the differing perspectives it tells to be true, it is most likely that none of them are. I, Tonya is an unabashed lie of a movie about liars telling THEIR truth…and that is what makes it so utterly fascinating and so relevant to our current age of subjective truth.
In execution, I, Tonya isn't quite a great film, but it certainly is an entertaining one, and I truly admired the movie for its ambition. Director Craig Gillespie takes the tabloid saga of fallen white trash princess Tonya Harding and turns it into a scathing indictment of America and the illusion and delusion of the American dream. Gillespie successfully pulls the scab off of America's festering class wound and exposes the cancerous rot at the center of American capitalism that threatens to kill its host via class and cultural warfare.
The entire cast does fantastic work, with lead actress Margot Robbie leading the charge. Robbie does solid and at times spectacular work as Harding. Robbie, for all of her obvious beauty, disappears into the rapacious inelegance of Harding with vivacious aplomb.
Robbie's Harding is, like Donald Trump, a compulsive liar who confuses her truth with "the truth". Robbie imbues Harding with a deep-seeded yearning that is encased in a cover of defiance and petulance. In one of the more fascinating scenes in the film, Harding sits alone before a mirror and like Jake LaMotta in Scorsese's Raging Bull or Dirk Diggler in PT Anderson's Bogie Nights, this is when her true, tortured, disfigured self emerges from behind the mask, if only for a moment. This mirror scene is a subtle bit of brilliance, and is the best work of Robbie's young career and reveals an artistic depth that I hope she is able to thoroughly mine going forward.
Allison Janney plays Tonya's mother, the incomparable LaVona Fay Golden. Janney devours every scene she inhabits with the ferocity of a grizzly bear in a honey factory. When I originally saw the trailer for I, Tonya I was turned off because they made the film, and Janney's performance in particular, seem completely comedic and over the top. Thankfully, Janney's work in the film is subtler, more nuanced and much more genuinely human than it appears in the trailer.
Janney's work as Tonya's mother has been compared to her Oscar competitor Laurie Metcalf for her work in Lady Bird as the protagonist's difficult mother. I will tell you right now, there is no comparison between the two. Janney gives a far superior performance because she is able to fill her abrasive, peculiar character with a grounded inner life that is vibrant and humanizing. Janney's LaVona is definitely a monster, but there is a pained and tortured person buried within that monster, whereas Metcalf's distant, dead-eyed mother is a one-note performance that rings more and more hollow with her every appearance on screen.
Sebastian Stan plays Tonya's husband Jeff Gillooly and does excellent work. Stan masterfully disappears into the nothingness that is Jeff Gillooly and at the center of his being places a primal scream that echoes throughout his inner void and reveals itself in Gillooly's impotent frustration.
Paul Walter Hauser nearly steals the entire film with his portrayal of Shawn Eckhardt, one of Gillooly's friends and Tonya's "bodyguard". Hauser deadpans with such skill it is nearly miraculous. Eckhardt is a character that in lesser hands than Hauser's could have been an over-the-top buffoon, but Hauser turns him into a fascinating, compelling, hysterical and heartbreaking figure.
As I watched I, Tonya other films kept popping into my head. The first film I thought of was Goodfellas, not because I, Tonya is anywhere near as great a work of cinema as Scorsese's classic, it isn't, but because the film uses similar techniques to break the rather stale mold of the bio-pic, like breaking the fourth wall and showing multiple perspectives. If you look closely at the film poster above, you'll notice I am not the only one to have recognized the similarities between Goodfellas and I, Tonya.
Another film that came to mind was The Post, which I had just reviewed a few days before seeing I, Tonya. The reason I thought of The Post is because that movie and seemingly every single critic and media person who writes or talks about it, always refers to The Post as "timely". In my review I pointed out how I felt The Post was rather untimely…but you know what is a "timely" film? I, Tonya. Unlike The Post which was shot in a hurry in June of 2017 in response to Trump's presidency, I, Tonya was conceived before Trump was even elected and began shooting before he was inaugurated…and yet, I, Tonya is considerably more prescient and insightful in terms of political relevance than Spielberg's flaccid ode to the establishment because it highlights class warfare and the elite versus working-class American divide. As opposed to The Post, and all of Spielberg and Hanks' films, which portray America as it wishes to see itself through the heavy gauze of its delusion, I, Tonya strips Trump's America bare and exposes the nation for what it TRULY is, not what it wants to be.
The third film I thought of was this year's critical darling, Lady Bird. The reason I thought of Lady Bird is because it is a sort of Disney channel lite-version of I, Tonya. Lady Bird playfully attempts to show the struggle of a lower middle class/working class young woman yearning to break free of her creatively suffocating world whereas I, Tonya shows a creative young woman, Tonya Harding, whom Lady Bird would ridicule, fighting for her literal survival in a country full of liars who despise her for not telling them the truth they want to hear. Unlike Lady Bird, I, Tonya shows real American poverty and the accompanying hopelessness that is strangling our country and is the birth mother of Trumpism. The obstacles Lady Bird must overcome are all imaginary and are the result of her selfishness and sense of entitlement. In I, Tonya, the obstacles facing the generationally poor in America are revealed to be the result of systemic causes that are baked into the American cake that result in self-destructive impulses and idiocy that knows no bounds. Lady Bird is a movie by an elitist about the world she's glad to have escaped, whereas I, Tonya is a movie about the type of dead-end people Lady Bird left behind, or more accurately, doesn't even know exist.
The hopelessness of the left behind dead-enders is fertile ground not only for the desperation that gave us Trump, but for the desperation that has given us the Opioid epidemic. I, Tonya is a funny movie in many ways because it has to be, for if it played itself as a straight drama it would be far too depressing to bear, the proof of which is played out over large swaths of America where Opioid-addicted zombies roam the streets and the stench of death and Narcan fills the air over vast swaths of the country all because people cannot face the meaninglessness of their lives and the emptiness of their reality.
Another film that came to mind while watching I, Tonya, was The Florida Project, which I have seen but have yet to review. The Florida Project is about a little girl growing up in numbing poverty in the shadow of Disney World. The film is difficult to watch, not because it is poorly made, but because it tells such uncomfortable truths that I, and maybe most people, would rather forget or never know about in the first place. The protagonist in The Florida Project is basically a young Tonya Harding without the skating talent…which is a chilling thought for her, and America's, future.
As for I, Tonya, the biggest drawback of the film for me was that it isn't shot particularly well. The film is a bit flat visually and lacks the cinematic vigor and camera panache of say, Goodfellas, but that hardly disqualifies it from being worth seeing. In some ways, the less than polished and professional feel of the film enhances the movie's working class appeal.
In conclusion, I, Tonya's ambition extends beyond its execution but in my eyes that it is a noble failing at worst. I encourage you to go spend your hard earned money and time to go see I, Tonya in the theatre because its courageous telling of the real story of class in America is not flattering, but it is revealing as to how we all ended up imprisoned in Trump's America. The real America, the America of I, Tonya and Trump, that Lady Bird and the rest of the elites want to pretend doesn't exist, is a Reality TV, celebrity obsessed, subjectively-truthy, Opioid-addicted, vapid, hopeless, white trash, fast-food nation. Trump is now King of I, Tonya's America, but twenty some-odd years ago, Tonya Harding was its Crown Princess, and she was a harbinger of the vacuous plague to come. I, Tonya is reminder of the warnings we have failed to heed, and the depth of the pit into which we have dug ourselves.