As it turns out, Margot Robbie makes a pretty fantastic Tonya Harding: I, Tonya is now the darling of the Toronto International Film Festival. (And right now is the hottest title currently without distribution, so expect a pretty competitive bidding war to break out. This movie is going to be huge.)
It’s fascinating how many under a certain age don’t know anything about the incident that occurred between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Heck, even Margot Robbie didn’t realize Harding was a real person until after she read the script. The story is just that insane.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (who directed Lars and the Real Girl and the underrated The Finest Hours) and written by Steven Rogers (Love The Coopers), I, Tonya is an often hilarious and always tragic look at the life of Tonya Harding – who, frankly, put up with a lot of shit in her life from a lot of terrible people. I, Tonya isn’t here to exonerate Harding, but it does paint a picture of a beleaguered life, interlaced with just the right amount of biting dark comedy and well-timed breaking of the fourth wall.
I, Tonya is framed around contemporary interviews with the key participants in the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan’s right knee, which provides talking heads commentary as the events unfold throughout the film. Those key participants are Harding (Robbie); her former husband, Jeff Gilooly (Sebastian Stan, who is fantastic); and Harding’s mother, LaVona (Allison Janney, who just entered the Best Supporting Actress race in a big way if this movie is released this year).
What’s amazing about I, Tonya is that (again) it’s not here to convince you that Harding didn’t do anything wrong (though, her role in the Kerrigan incident is probably a lot different than you remember). But it’s impossible to not feel empathy for Harding, who is abused physically by her mother (at one point LaVona throws a knife at Tonya, which stabs her in the arm), and later physically abused by Jeff Gilooly. Yet, somehow, I, Tonya never becomes depressing, even though it certainly should be. Everything that happens to Tonya seems to push her even further to become the best damn skater in the world – even though literally no one else (other than her coach, Diane, played perfectly by Julianne Nicholson) wants to see that happen for her. It does often feel like it’s Tonya Harding versus the world.
We forget just how good of a skater Harding was – she was the first American woman to complete a triple axel at an international event. It’s okay, I didn’t really know what that meant either, but the film does a stellar job of explaining exactly what that means. (TL;DR: It’s very difficult.) She was so good that the Olympic committee had no choice but to include her on the 1992 and 1994 American Olympic teams (the 1994 Winter Olympics occurred only two years after the previous Winter Games to start the cycle of the Summer and Winter Olympics happening two years apart instead of during the same year), even though it’s obvious that everyone hated her and the company she kept.
To explain the tone of this film, there’s an early scene in which we watch a montage of Jeff Gilooly hitting Tonya Harding – it’s very disturbing. But then current day Tonya interrupts the montage to point out that Kerrigan got hit only one time and the world went into a frenzy. Yes, this can be a very dark movie.
Though, it’s kind of strange that the infamous incident is maybe the least interesting part of I, Tonya. In a nutshell: Gilooly wants to intimidate Nancy Kerrigan by sending her some death threats. A dimwit named Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) agrees to help, but escalates it all by hiring two other nitwits to physically attack Kerrigan. These people are all such morons, it gets a little taxing spending that much time with dumb people. (What’s pretty amazing is some of the things that these people say out loud can’t possibly be true – for example, Eckhardt tells a reporter that he’s a secret government spy – but then during the credits we see and hear real interviews with these people and, yes, they actually do say this stuff.)
But the star is obviously Robbie. And for people who remember the incident well, no, Robbie doesn’t look exactly like Tonya Harding, but who cares? Robbie finds those inner demons in Harding and pummels through I, Tonya like a charging bull. This is without question Robbie’s best role to date. She’s a dynamo playing a dynamo with both rage and compassion. And we probably won’t think about Margot Robbie or Tonya Harding the same way again.
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