Sunday, April 22, 2018

I, Tonya

Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Houser, Caitlyn Carver, Ricky Russert, Mckenna Grace
Running Time: 119 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

There's this moment that comes in Craig Gillespie's biopic, I, Tonya, when disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, years removed from the infamous event that would define her life and career, turns to the camera to tell us this is part of the story we've been waiting for. It's why we're here. Or the "incident," as it's referred to. More time is spent on it than you've been lead to believe, which includes everything from the planning to the botched execution and even more seriously botched cover-up. But I, Tonya isn't about any of this, while still also managing to be completely about it at the same time.

It becomes nearly impossible to separate the accompanying media narrative pushing Harding as this victimized anti-hero from the film itself. If the full extent of Harding's involvement in the 1994 attack on rival Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan will always be subject for debate, what isn't is the fact that her actions and associations did lead directly to it. And with all that being true, it also needs to be acknowledged that she lead a mostly terrible life defined by physical and psychological abuse.

The toughest aspect of the movie is how it uncomfortably forces all those aforementioned elements to co-exist in a way they haven't before, perhaps in the end landing at the conclusion that Harding, no matter how you feel about her, never stood a chance. That any success she had was indirectly bred from misery and that feeling of never fitting in would persist, regardless of her talent or accomplishments. If you're Team Kerrigan, as I was at the time and still remain, there's relief in knowing that it's okay to empathize with the title character of this film, while not extending that same courtesy to the real person on whom it's based.

While filled to the brim with its fair share of detestable losers, it's also really cleverly conceived, told in a fourth wall-breaking, quasi-documentary style that suits the twisted subject, featuring flashbacks and interviews that carry a satirical tone, assuring the absurdity of the situation and its delusional characters is rarely lost. That combined with the two perfectly calibrated performances make for one of the more intriguing entries into the sports movie genre, as if there's even a correct way to categorize this. But whatever it is, it's definitely not what anyone expected.

It's the 1970's when three-year-old ice skating prodigy Tonya Harding is pushed by her abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janey) to train in her hometown of Portland, Oregon under the guidance of coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). Seeing her daughter's astounding talent as merely a quick cash-in, Tonya (Margot Robbie) continues to rise up the ranks into her teen years, rapidly becoming one of the best figure skaters in the country. But even as she does this on pure skill alone, she faces resistance from those within the skating committee who take exception to her "poor white trash" reputation, which manifests itself on the ice with her costumes and rock music choices, not to mention the constant swearing at judges over scores.

Off the ice, Tonya does herself even fewer favors, associating with the likes of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), whom she began dating at 15, and eventually marrying, much to LaVona's disapproval. It's a relationship that proves to be nearly as destructive and toxic as that with her mom, who continues to verbally cut her down as a failure well into young adulthood, while Gillooly's volcanic temper soon leads to violent beatings. The better Tonya's skating gets, the more hellish her personal life becomes, with all roads leading to the 1994 attack on Olympic rival and teammate Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlyn Carver) by Gillooly stooges Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and Shane Stant (Ricky Russert). Unfortunately, the rest is history.

While it's easy to accuse Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers' screenplay of piling on the trauma that followed Harding throughout her life, too much of it actually occurred to effectively hurl that criticism. And all of it came from her mother, who's played here by Janney in her Oscar-winning supporting turn as just about the most detestable parent and human being one could imagine existing, constantly lashing out at her daughter for no good reason other than to mitigate her own failures.

Making Tonya feel as worthless as possible isn't just an everyday occurrence with the vulgar, chain-smoking LaVona, but her life's mission, poorly disguising it under the mask of "tough love" as she brags about the sacrifices she's made for her disappointment of a daughter. As driving force and chief antagonist of this entire story, I'd love to report she's a deeply complex, nuanced character, but the fact is she's just plain awful. This comes as a relief in some ways, completely in line with the film's darkly comic viciousness, as the script makes no apologies or excuses for her monstrous behavior.

Many detractors are right in assessing that Janney is hitting one note and LaVona is a caricature, but anyone who's seen footage of the real woman (who actually does have a pet parakeet on her shoulder) would tell you that's exactly what she is. And given the semi-ironic tone the picture's going for, any attempt to humanize her would probably be a major mistake. It's a telling moment when during one of the many videotaped confessional moments, Harding expresses confusion as to why so many people would care about Nancy Kerrigan getting hit once when she was beaten her entire life. It takes a second to realize the statement is true, before realizing what that says about Tonya for making it. And none of it's flattering.

In addition to completely transforming her physical appearance, effectively adapting her mannerisms and style of speech and believably inhabiting the figure skater from her early teen years into nearly middle age, the biggest accomplishment of Margot Robbie's outlandishly great lead performance is how it gives you peeks into this tragically troubled athlete's psyche. If her mother has no hint of humanity, Tonya does, putting the work in to reach the top only to have her demons destroy the only thing she ever loved and excelled at: skating.

Despite possessing considerably more raw talent than her rivals and becoming the first woman to nail the triple axel (in one of many believable, masterfully edited competition scenes) it still wasn't good enough because she couldn't "play the game." And that's important in a sport that revolves around class and elegance, something ice princess Kerrigan had in spades but Tonya's upbringing made it impossible for her to fake, even if she was willing to. And she was never willing to, in so many ways setting up this dichotomy that existed between Harding and Kerrigan that went beyond sport and competition, serving instead as media catnip.

The genius of the screenplay is how their feud isn't explicitly explored (Kerrigan hardly appears), but its cultural implications nonetheless permeate through every frame of the film, even reaching back to when Tonya's a little girl. It's crass vs. class. The smoking, swearing rebel vs. the sweet girl next door. And as skilled as Hollywood writers are, none of them could have crafted a better story than the real one that took viewers into Lillehammer in 1994 when for a few short months figure skating became bigger than the Super Bowl. Wisely, Gillespie doesn't attempt to replicate that, instead focusing on its most controversial participant, with even the classic rock soundtrack selections inseparable from Tonya's head space, as well as the lowlifes she surrounded herself with.

Most of the picture's second half revolves around her relationship with Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan in an underappreciated performance. Initially presenting himself as meek and quiet, he eventually assumes the mantle of the new chronic abuser in Harding's life, as their toxic on-again, off-again relationship is filled with nonstop verbal and physical altercations, including a particularly memorable one involving a firearm. And it's in a pathetically desperate last ditch attempt to prove he "loves" her that Gillooly calls in a favor from his buddy Shawn Eckhardt, perhaps the most pitiable and inept character in this entire saga, with actual assailant Shane Stant running a close second.

What begins as an anonymous threat against Kerrigan careens wildly out of control, and what's most surprising about how Gillespie depicts the infamous incident is how it's hilariously played as total farce. And that's exactly what it was. An episode of "World's Dumbest Criminals" that happened to have very real, deadly serious consequences. Did Tonya know?  Does it even matter? While the script doesn't present any additional information to come to a concrete conclusion one way or another, Tonya Harding is responsible. Or rather irresponsible, just by her association with Gillooly. In other words, by the time the knee clubbing occurred, the crazy train already left the station for Tonya, and the screenplay does an excellent job detailing how her life would inevitably lead to disaster. If it wasn't this, then there's a good chance it just would have been something else.

While it's clearly irrefutable that justice was served in the ruling to ban Harding for life from figure skating and TV ratings can be cited as the only reason she was at the Olympics instead of in jail, there's another defining event in the film that lingers longer in the mind. It comes in the only moment LaVona seems to display something resembling an actual soul, before the curtain is pulled back to reveal more heinous motivations. It's may be easy to argue whether Harding did or didn't deserve her lot in life, but few would claim she had that betrayal coming, especially at the hands of her own mother.

While criticisms will continue to persist that Gillespie is really making fun of these people with the mockumentary approach he takes, it's a story that's probably impossible with a straight face anyway, or at least without occasionally winking at the audience. It's the perfect approach because the situation is just too absurd to do otherwise, especially when the harshest skewering is reserved for the media in the form of Bobby Cannavale's Hard Copy tabloid TV producer. At one point, Harding's contemplative and brutally honest, if not particularly self-reflective, narration acknowledges how shows like that are now the news thanks this event and the O.J. case. But I,Tonya delves even deeper by attempting to explore how much a person's actions are guided and shaped by socio-economic circumstances extending beyond their control, and whether or not that  should matter when life's final score is eventually tallied.