I, Tonya is Australian director Craig Gillespie’s fourth-wall breaking biopic about disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding. In the questions it raises about guilt and implication, the individual versus society, the film riffs on Bob Dylan’s blame-searching song Who Killed Davey Moore?, which probed the roles of people associated with a boxer who died in the ring. Should blame purely be assigned to the boxer for participating, or were there other potential culprits: the manager for profiteering, the crowd for chanting, the opponent for landing the deadly blow?
Harding has always denied knowing about the incident for which she is best remembered: the knee-capping of an opponent (with a metal baton in January 1994) from a more privileged background. Assuming Harding’s story is true, was this her fault anyway, for engaging with unsavoury sorts and being cognisant of a less severe crime (the mailing of death threats)? Was it the fault of her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) for enlisting the services of crooks?
Should we factor in the prejudice of figure skating judges, unfairly marking Harding down because she didn’t wear a nice costume and project a wholesome image? What about Harding’s physically and emotionally abusive mother LaVona (a wickedly entertaining Alison Janney) who conditioned her daughter to fight fire with fire? Or society itself, i.e. a broken education system, for not lending a hand?
Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers do not make excuses for their subjects, but do make a film partly about making excuses. This is why the hackneyed, The Office-esque mockumentary format works so well in I,Tonya. Like the film’s title, which evokes the taking of an oath, it makes a point that the truth is elusive no matter what the context. Gillespie not only acknowledges a disconnect between fact and fiction, but he feeds off it.
I, Tonya has a dangerous fizz. The drama isn’t cheapened by comedy, and the comedy doesn’t undermine the drama.
The recent Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri mistook anger for righteousness, wallowing in carnage inflicted by people whose lower class circumstances limit their options, propelled by the nastiest of events: the murder and rape of a teenager. I, Tonya on the other hand ascertains that its subjects never had much of a chance. Only then does it probe them for accountability, inside a context with satirical and symbolic potential: figure skating as a microcosm of society, and/or an arena to study class privilege. It is a sports and performance film that’s even more more cynical than Darren Aronofsky’s ballerina horror Black Swan, because it points outside rather than within – it’s less interested in psychology than context and association.
The fourth wall of I, Tonya is also broken at unpredictable points inside the narrative proper, i.e. during a dramatic and/or humorous moment a character will briefly address the audience. A similar technique was used in director Adam McKay’s GFC explainer The Big Short (which Robbie appeared in) to bring clarity to complicated subjects. Here it has the reverse effect, further deranging truth and muddying waters, making it clear the storytellers are not capable of telling this story in factually accurate ways.
It is a film with sharp and pointy edges, fiercely honest because of (not despite) understanding its limitations.
Margot Robbie, whose celebrity-shedding performance has scored her an Academy Award nomination, could hardly come across more differently here than in The Big Short, appearing in a bathtub clutching a glass of champagne. Her excellent, attention-grabbing portrayal of Harding paints a picture of a rough as guts woman, without the need for extreme makeup to kick it in this direction. The point is made that there is not necessarily much separating glamour from hideousness; sometimes just an attitude.
Gillespie extracts comedy from the behaviour of small time crooks and wannabe masterminds, as the Coen brothers did so memorably in Fargo, which this film reminded me of. But in visions of domestic abuse and other disturbing topics, the joke-making comes to a screeching halt and the blows really land. I, Tonya has a dangerous fizz. The drama isn’t cheapened by comedy, and the comedy doesn’t undermine the drama.
It is a film with sharp and pointy edges, fiercely honest because of (not despite) understanding its limitations. Nobody would come away thinking they had experienced the gospel truth. The combination of humour and sadness, fake documentary and fake recreation, reality and artifice, crackles and fizzes. Like the film itself, the characters tell the truth about lying, and lie about telling the truth.
PLEASE CONSIDER HELPING US PUBLISH MORE ARTS REVIEWS AND COMMENTARY AT A TIME WHEN IT IS DECLINING IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA. FIND OUT MORE HERE