Sunday, March 11, 2018

"I, Tonya": review

Often funny, always satirical, and sometimes very hard to watch, 2017's "I, Tonya" is the maybe-sort-of-true story of the notorious Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who was peripherally involved in a 1994 incident in which her friend and rival, fellow Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), was attacked by Shane Stant (Ricky Russert). Stant struck Kerrigan with an extendable baton, injuring Kerrigan's knee and prompting the skater's famously plaintive exclamation of "Why? Why?" to the cameras as the world watched.

The story of "I, Tonya" begins early in Harding's life, back when she is a little girl (Mckenna Grace) who is in love with skating, but who must labor under an incredibly abusive harridan of a mother named LaVona Golden (Allison Janney, who won the Oscar for this role). Tonya's father leaves the picture early in the girl's life, leaving her in her mother's clutches. LaVona verbally and physically abuses Tonya who, as a teen, eventually meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and begins a life away from her mother. The movie follows Tonya's rocky relationship with Gillooly, who is also physically abusive, and his dealings with shady friends like the fat and stupid Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), whom the movie portrays as the oafish, self-deluded mastermind behind the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. The movie takes us from Tonya's early career on the ice and through her first and second Olympic competitions. We witness her downfall as the Kerrigan scandal erupts around her, and we see something of the aftermath as Tonya is banned for life from competitive skating, only to take up celebrity boxing and, eventually, to become a mother herself.

"I, Tonya" has the obvious agenda of making Tonya Harding sympathetic—a victim of circumstance who didn't ask to be born into a hardscrabble, white-trash existence, and who careened from an abusive mother to an abusive boyfriend and husband. Personally, I wasn't moved by this attempt at manipulation; the real-life Harding has all the appeal of a rotting fish. I did appreciate the director and screenwriter's choice to turn the movie into a narrative told from three distinct and fundamentally contradictory points of view: Tonya's, LaVona's, and Jeff's. The film is peppered with Scorsese-style fourth-wall breaks à la Henry Hill in "Goodfellas," and we can never be sure whose tale is closest to the truth. Like life, the film's story is a jumbled, incommensurate mess, but it's clear that Harding's life is far messier than most people's lives. I ended the film feeling thankful that, for all the drama I've been through in my own life, none of it holds a candle to the horror the film portrays.

Along with the direction and the screenwriting, the actors all carry the film. Allison Janney is marvelous as the hateful, selfish, twisted, and even devious LaVona Golden; Janney deserved her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Margot Robbie does an incredible job of portraying Tonya's attempts at gathering up the scraps of her dignity in a precious, competitive world little different from that of ballerinas. Robbie looks nothing like the real Harding, which means she has to work all the harder to sell this performance. I got the impression that Robbie did much of her own skating, except for those crucial triple-axel scenes, so she gets credit for that as well. Sebastian Stan is also impressive as Jeff Gillooly, who alternates between being hilariously stupid and being frighteningly abusive. When I said, earlier, that this movie was "hard to watch," I was referring to the physical abuse that Gillooly deals out to Tonya. Fists to the face, open-hand blows to the face... at one point, Jeff grabs Tonya's head and smashes it against a glass-covered picture on the wall. Much of this abuse comes out of nowhere, a reflection of Jeff's sudden and unbridled fury. It's Jeff, in a way, who either controls or is a reflection of the movie's tone as a whole: "I, Tonya" is alternately funny and frightening, allowing us a glimpse into a world that most of us, with our comfortable lives, would be hard-pressed to imagine. Paul Walter Hauser also deserves a shout-out for his performance as dim-bulb Shawn Eckhardt, who lives a slob's life with his parents, but tells an interviewer he's an expert in international counterterrorism.

The movie contends that Jeff Gillooly simply wanted to scare Nancy Kerrigan as a way of psyching her out and disturbing her competitive focus, but it was Shawn Eckhardt who took Gillooly's plan and turned it, for whatever reason, into an actual attack on Kerrigan—one that was easily traced back to Shane Stant, whom Eckhardt hired, and then back to Eckhardt and Gillooly themselves. Where things get murky is in how much Tonya knew about the plan to attack Kerrigan. The movie implies that she knew Gillooly wanted to send Kerrigan anonymous threatening letters, but nothing else.

All in all, "I, Tonya" is a well-directed film filled with ace performances by a stable of talented actors. Its crazy tone and fractured, obfuscatory narrative structure reflect the brokenness of the lives of the people whose story we're watching. The film shows us a world I'm glad and thankful not to live in, but it does fail in its mission to make Tonya Harding, a truly unsavory person, into someone sympathetic. That flaw notwithstanding, I think the film makes for worthwhile viewing. You'll laugh, you'll cringe, and every time Jeff Gillooly's fist smashes into Tonya's face, you'll wince and die a little inside.

1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

It wasn't very pleasant to watch, but I liked the film more than I ever thought possible due to my previous recollection of the unsavory title character. The film fleshed her out, and while still rather obnoxious for the most part, explained a lot of what went into making her the trailer-trash, blade-wielding, desperado she became and has to live with. Then, there's the fact that "the Winter Soldier" was nearly unrecognizable as Jeff Gillooly spoke to the tremendous casting they did to make this film actually work.

In the end, I doubt I would have searched this loosely biographical film out had I not lived through that time period and seen the rather farcical train-wreck first-hand. The one very big knock I have against this film, is it's lack of fair coverage to Nancy and the hell she endured while the world watched.