Laceratingly funny and unexpectedly empathetic, "I, Tonya" tells of the fast rise and infamous fall of shamed figure skater Tonya Harding, making sure all the while she comes off looking like more than a punchline. This is key to the substantial success of director Craig Gillespie's (2016's "The Finest Hours
") and writer Steven Rogers' (2015's "Love the Coopers
") voraciously entertaining, blazingly cinematic black comedy. In the wrong hands, this subject matter could have easily resembled a sudsy Lifetime movie. It never, not once, does.
Margot Robbie (2016's "Suicide Squad
") is a force to be reckoned with as Tonya Harding, a scrappy, loudly opinionated Portland, Oregon, native whose talent in the ice rink was always at odds with her hardscrabble family life and background. Her waitress mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), is a nightmare; yes, she funded Tonya's dream of being a professional skater, but she was also emotionallyand sometimes physicallyabusive. The central narrative is interspersed with contradictory talking-head interviews predominately taken from real transcripts and, as Tonya tells it, nothing she did was ever good enough for LaVona. When Tonya meets and eventually marries mechanic Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her attempt to escape the clutches of her mother proves thankless, the circle of abuse continuing with the hot-tempered Jeff.
The film knows what viewers have come forthat fateful day of January 6, 1994, when 23-year-old Harding's main competitor Nancy Kerrigan was attacked backstage and clubbed on the right knee at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, an incident planned by Harding's then-ex Jeff and sometimes-bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser)but there's more to Tonya and her story than this talking point. By exploring all facets of her upbringing and the path which led to her being under suspicion by the FBI for playing a part in the assault on Kerrigan, Gillespie and Rogers do not let her off the hook, but do consider the ways in which she became a victim of her own environment. While she had a lot of cards stacked against herher image was far from the wholesome one the International Olympic Committee likes to champion, and she could never quite escape the unhealthy relationships within her inner circleit was her blinding drive for fame and victory which became her Achilles' heel.
"I, Tonya" crackles and pops throughout its two-hour running time, at once a complex, equal-opportunity biopic, an irreverent satire, and a riveting crime drama. Sterling music selections (among them, Bad Company's "Shooting Star," Fun Lovin' Criminals' "Shining Star," Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," and Supertramp's "Goodbye Stranger") and dazzling, free-roaming camerawork from cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (2015's "The Loft
") bring scope, energy and authenticity to the film's working-class milieu. Margot Robbie disappears behind her character, never making Tonya a caricature and never approaching the role as a transparent impersonation. Instead, Robbie digs deeper, painting a three-dimensional portrait of an ambitious but ultimately free-wheeling young woman who had a seemingly never-ending array of cards stacked against her, one of them with her own face printed on it. This is a tour de force performance of many layers, and technically impressive, to boot; the skating sequences never look anything less than entirely convincing, a likely resulting combo of Robbie's personal dedication, an uncanny body double, and an ace effects team.
As Tonya's tornado of a mother LaVona, Allison Janney (2016's "The Girl on the Train
") is an unforgettable, sometimes frightening scream. Janney plays the part as an emotionally cold woman who has permanently replaced motherly affection for impossible demands, who can never admit to her mistakes but has no trouble highlighting her daughter's. The scenes between Robbie and Janney spark with electricity, Tonya's attempts to get her mom's approval or support constantly hitting a barbwire-laced brick wall. "Well, my storyline is disappearing right now," an interviewed LaVona hilariously pipes in during the mostly LaVona-less second act, a pet bird perched dutifully on her shoulder. It's probably as scared of her as everyone else is. Supporting work is solid across the board, from Sebastian Stan (2016's "Captain America: Civil War
"), given more shades than one might expect as Jeff Gillooly; auspicious newcomer Paul Walter Hauser as Jeff's blabbermouth, dumb-as-a-box-of-hair pal/cohort Shawn Eckhardt; Julianne Nicholson (2015's "Black Mass
") as supportive, oft-frustrated coach Diane Rawlinson; Mckenna Grace (2016's "Independence Day: Resurgence
"), poignant and appropriately unreserved as the young Tonya; and Ricky Russert, comically inspired as Shane Stant, the ditzy hired "hit" man.
Doing for ice skating what 1995's masterful Gus Van Sant-directed, Nicole Kidman-starring "To Die For" did for news journalism, "I, Tonya" weaves a wild true story of ruthless ambition and criminality. With more than two decades gone by, now was the time to freshly tackle this fascinating human subject and the whirlwind of incendiary notoriety Tonya Harding found stamped upon her name. Some of it was probably warranted, but certainly not all, and not permanently. For viewers who think they know and clearly remember the full story, think again; indeed, not even the participants who were there tell quite the same tale, each version of events skewed to usually paint themselves in the best light possible. What director Craig Gillespie ultimately gets at is that Tonya was a flawed human being, not a devious villain, and he does this with a tone at once strikingly jocular and deliciously, movingly operatic in its pinball of high drama and lost opportunities.