Film Review: I, Tonya

This dazzling cinematic tour de force inspired by the infamous 1994 headline-grabbing attack on figure-skating champ Nancy Kerrigan that implicated rival Tonya Harding and her seamy coterie is comedic entertainment at its most savage and incisive.
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So how could two hours spent with I, Tonya watching nonstop sleazy people doing sleazy things in mostly sleazy places possibly be worth anyone’s time, even as the filmmakers deliver their icky pileup with no judgmental finger-wagging but with a light, not-so-nice satiric touch? Could so many unsavory characters and so much bad behavior be worth a theatre detour to see this film of horrors without its genre’s conventions?

A good bet is “Yes,” as both art-house fans and mainstream audiences will find their varying pleasures here. Importantly, the film, set mainly in Portland, Oregon (with Georgia ably standing in), teems with a spectacular ensemble cast, dominated by Australian Margot Robbie as low-born anti-heroine Tonya Harding, who went on to figure skating fame and infamy, and Allison Janney as her mean, obscenity-spouting, nicotine-addicted waitress mother. Both have award soothsayer tongues wagging.

Another draw, certainly for many boomer viewers, is the film’s underlying sensationalistic true story of the early ’90s (whipped up by a frenzied media) that involved a hired punk dispatched to a skating championship in Massachusetts who bashed Harding rival Nancy Kerrigan’s leg. Uncertainties still surround the real-life scandal and I, Tonya milks these cleverly, as the film, intercutting between the sordid past and present, isalso part mockumentary: Key characters are depicted later in life, delivering their own accounts of events to a camera/interviewer seeking answers about “the incident.”

Yet the film teasingly takes its time getting to any resolution of who really was behind the attack. Tonya is introduced at not even age three, almost literally being pushed onto a Portland skating rink by backstage mother-from-hell Lavona (Janney) so that Diane (Julianne Nicholson), a local figure-skating trainer, might spot the child and take her on. It works.

With Diane’s tutelage, Tonya begins her rise through the ranks. But she’s burdened with a hardscrabble life. Abandoned by a father with whom she shot rabbits for food and fur coats and disdained by her mom, she must sew her own skating outfits, which are tacky indeed. Also tacky, when not obscene, is her behavior with competition judges intent on keeping ill-born competitors like Tonya out of the public eye.

Kicked out of the house by her mother, teen Tonya moves in with ne’er-do-well beau Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, delivering another of the film’s fine performances), whom she will eventually marry. (Their dreary wedding party is one for the books.) But theirs is also a marriage of two short fuses: fights, gunshots (even a hit), and other abuse threaten the union. Jeff is further defined by the creepy company he keeps, especially best pal Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), a lumpy do-nothing dumbbell who still lives with his parents and fancies himself an international spy/surveillance operative.

But Tonya’s competitive skating continues robust into her early 20s. And with loyal mentor Diane still in her corner, she’s eyeing the Olympics. Beyond obstacles like her poverty and lousy attitude, there’s talented rival Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver, in a small role).

Other very notable performances come from Ricky Russert as Shane Staat, the dopey perp who infiltrates the gym where Kerrigan is skating, and the always amusing Bobby Cannavale, here as the cynical mockumentary witness who covers the leg-bashing “incident” and investigation for tabloid TV series “Hard Copy.”

But just as performances thrill, so does the cinematic artistry and craftsmanship, tech and otherwise. Steven Rogers’ script is an uncanny combination of humor, credibility and right tone that beautifully captures the ugliness of this slice of Americana and pop-culture history. Skating scenes are thrilling (CGI trickery delivers Robbie as the gifted skater) and enchantingly flow, as does so much of Nicolas Karakatsanis’ fluid camerawork. Tatiana S. Riegel's editing and crosscutting between the past and the witness testimonies create continual suspense by demanding attention for every lurid frame that unfolds. Upping the being-there quality is a music-track blast of the era’s jauntiest pop tunes (e.g., familiar cuts from Chicago, ZZ Top, Marshall Tucker Band, Foreigner, etc.) and well-chosen and placed archival material, including actual newscasts of “the incident.”

Last but far from least is the accomplishment here of director Craig Gillespie, an Australian like Robbie, who manages to bring much levity to such dark doings. Were awards competition not so fierce this year, he’d be a shoo-in for a nomination.

Perhaps most insightfully (if maybe not intentionally), I, Tonya also delivers a vivid tranche of the Trump voting bloc responsible for destroying the dignity of a once-respected government and country. Credit goes to the film’s full-frontal thrust into the vulgar world of gun, junk food and strip-joint-loving, abusive lowlifes most identified with but hardly exclusive to “red” states.

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