I, Tonya review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
I, Tonya is a sports conspiracy biopic that comes with the skepticism already tacked on, free of charge. Told in a seemingly meta Rashomon style story, Tonya Harding’s tough, brutal, and emotional tale of trying to be an expert skater is relayed by all the players. And they all have different perspectives. They’re also not going to shy away from the real reason you’re watching this movie and what becomes the centerpiece event of Tonya’s career; when her rival of rival Nancy Kerrigan was attacked before the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. Though she wasn’t personally involved, it did tarnish her career and turn her into a bit of a joke due to the unsavory people she associated with.
What makes I, Tonya so fascinating is that it doesn’t beg for sympathy from the character. I doubt they’d accept it. Born from cynicism and parenting that came with sneers and spit, Tonya is exceptionally played by Margot Robbie as a woman that has grown up with abuse and pain. Shes struggles growing up with her scowling and overly strict mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), a big-glasses chain-smoker of a mother where every shred of happiness has left her soul. LaVona is ruthless in placing every penny in funding Tonya’s skating lessons from an early age that she has become bitter towards her daughter in every way, always talking trash with a cigarette constantly in hand. There’s an uncomfortable comedy in her savagery that paints her as a villain, though her addressing of the camera comes with a not-that-bad tone to her condescension.
Sebastian Stan plays Tonya’s husband of Jeff Gillooly, the mustachioed scummy guy willing to do anything for Tonya to win, a cross between a Bond villain and a porn star. He wants to do what’s best but, much like LaVona, he’s yet another player that traps Tina in a world where she’s never good enough. While Tonya continues to explode with rage and become emotional with her competitive figure skating, Jeff turns into more of a criminal with his association with the inept bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Shawn is portrayed as such a dolt in his conspiring to take a whack at Nancy’s knees that you can’t help but laugh. Director Steven Rogers dares you to with his blunt storytelling that takes aim on the absurdity of the case more than the dramatics. After all, if the characters don’t approach this story sincerity, why should the movie? Whatever empathy you have towards the character is of your own ethics.
Sure, Rogers spins the charisma levels high for all involved if only to make the story more engaging. Twisting of events? Sure but the film willingly admits to this reworking as described by all involved. And that is perhaps the best part of the film, the refusal to compromise on one clear vision of this case. For the brief moments when Tonya is on the ice, there’s a brief sense of relief. So it’s more than understandable she’d be pleading with a judge to send her to prison rather than be banned from professional figure skating.
I, Tonya is not an easy picture to watch at times, not so much for the content for coming to terms with how you should be feeling on the subject. Consider the scene where Tonya becomes a target for the media of being involved in Nancy’s injury. Her mother steps into her life to offer her comfort, only for Tonya to discover she’s wearing a wire in hopes of extracting a confession. Embodying the sense of LaVona, emotions are considered a weakness in this wacky world of skating and skating sabotage. It’s that cutthroat nature to the material that makes it a far more entertaining tale rather than a did-they-didn’t-they biopic of standard stand-off nature.