I took advantage of a child free, school-work free day off yesterday and used a free movie ticket voucher to go and see I, Tonya by myself. I love the thrill of seeing a movie alone from time to time. There is something liberating in not worrying about what the person next to you is thinking of the film and finding some time to escape incognito into the dark arms of the cinema. This film has been on my “To See” list for a while and I have had plans to check it out in the last month, but each time those plans had fallen through. Before viewing this film I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew almost nothing about Tonya Harding, let alone the dramatic events of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. I’d heard some good things and obviously seen the huge number of awards for which this film has been nominated. I went in not really knowing what to expect and this film completely blew my socks off.
Told in a mockumentary style through interviews with the main characters and flashbacks to events of which they speak, the film tells the pitiful story of American ice skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie). Tonya is raised in a working class, “white trash” family in the poorer parts of Portland, Oregon. Abandoned by her father, she is physically and psychologically abused by her mother, but has a love of ice-skating. Tonya begins training at age four and is eventually taken out of high school to train full time. Looked down upon by the ice skating fraternity for her lack of decorum, home made costumes and questionable music choices, despite being one of the best ice-skaters in the world she finds herself constantly having to prove and re-prove herself by doing things other ice skaters have not been able to achieve (the highly technical and extremely difficult triple axel jump, for example). At age 15, Tonya begins dating Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who she marries soon after, trading her abusive home life with her mother for an even more abusive home life with Jeff.
The film moves us through Tonya’s life and career up to the 1994 Winter Olympics. While training in the lead up to the team trials, Tonya is spooked by a death threat. Worried this will keep her off her game, Jeff comes up with a plan to send some threatening letters to Tonya’s key rival, Nancy Kerrigan, to even up the playing field. Unfortunately, Jeff leaves this task to his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), a dim-witted, delusional loser who instead hires two equally idiotic crooks to bash Kerrigan’s knee caps in one afternoon after a training session.
Despite the effective use of a lot of black humour (it’s not all serious – there are moments that are genuinely funny and satirical), I found the ending of the film and what happened to Harding so unjust it felt Shakespearean in it’s level of tragedy. Whether she was involved in the plot to injure Kerrigan or not, the price she paid was higher than any of the other players in the violent debacle. I left the cinema feeling angry, yet inspired by her tenacity and resilience. This film sometimes breaks the fourth wall by having Tonya speak directly to the camera from time to time. This is used sparingly and effectively, feeling less like an additional intrusion, but more like a comment on the nature of truth, which is interestingly one of the key themes of the film. Screenwriter Steven Rogers interviewed both Harding and Jeff Gillooly about the Kerrigan incident for the film and they both had completely contradictory recollections. Consequently, the film finishes by Harding asserting, “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.” We will never know the truth of what really happened, but we are unsure if any of the players know the truth either.
This film also speaks to class warfare within communities and how that can often be a barrier to success. Harding’s social status and family situation, rather than being regarded as irrelevant as it should, almost robs her of the chance to compete. There are also some thoughtful insights about how psychology plays such a huge role in sport. In one key scene Harding’s mother pays a man to verbally abuse and ridicule her directly before she competes because the anger seems to motivate her – she needs people to think she can’t do it in order to prove she can.
The nature of fame and abuse though are at the heart of the film, and I suppose fame being a form of abuse. Harding comments in her interviews: “America. They want someone to love, they want someone to hate”, and it’s clear through Harding’s story, as well as the clever visual intertextual reference to the OJ Simpson story, that this is often found through celebrity sports men and women. Harding also comments insightfully on the irony of the incident with Kerrigan: “Look, Nancy gets hit one time and the whole world shits… For me it was an all-the-time occurrence.” There is a threat of violence that permeates every scene in this film, and you realise, despite Harding’s talent and achievements, she was shaped to think she always deserved to be a punching bag. Because of this I feel that there is a lot here about understanding victims of violence and abuse – that they often remain locked in psychological war with themselves. I have been dipping in and out of reading the first volume of Jimmy Barnes’ autobiography Working Class Boy (2016) and he reflects on the way in which there really is no escape from violence because it ultimately reprograms your brain, and that the abuse will resurface forever in various forms, be it addiction or depression or something else. I felt that was one of the messages of this film too.
The film is deftly directed by Australian Craig Gillespie, and is so well written by Steven Rogers. The editing is clever and well paced, weaving together the interviews and flashbacks seamlessly. The performances are all great, but my word, Margo Robbie as Tonya Harding and Allison Janney as her mother, LaVona Golden, are each a revelation. Robbie impressed me with her breakout performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, but in I, Tonya, she demonstrates her range and chameleon-like abilities. So sexy and confident in The Wolf of Wall Street, she is ugly and childlike here. I’ve long admired Alison Janney’s work since I first saw her in that tiny role in American Beauty back in the late 1990s, and loved her to death as CJ Cregg in The West Wing, but she gives a knock out performance here. She is grotesquely monstrous as Harding’s mother and I found my body tensing each time she stepped into frame. Both are extremely deserving of all the award nominations they are currently enjoying.
I honestly can’t rate this film highly enough. I stewed on it for hours afterwards and probably will continue to for days to come.