By Jack Dignan
Everyone’s a winner, baby, that’s the truth. You don’t necessarily have to win to be a winner. The two often don’t go hand in hand. Tonya Harding (played here by Margot Robbie) was a winner. There’s no doubt about that. Her name may ring a bell, but the story behind her fame… well… that’s what nobody’s really sure of. I, Tonya details the events surrounding Tonya’s life during her upbringing with abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney), early relationship with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and the now infamous “incident” at the 1994 Olympics, which, even if you think you know the truth of, you definitely don’t.
It’s a story that’s wildly contradicting, playing out as a chaotic back and forth whirlwind of “he said” “she said,” where, at the end of the day, the truth doesn’t matter. I, Tonya sees an Olympian figure skater come from nothing and build her life from the ground up, all before it ultimately comes tumbling down. But the truth of the matter isn’t what’s important here; this is a film that triumphantly says “fuck you” to the truth. Screenwriter Steven Rogers knows that finding it out is an impossible task. Instead, what we get is a sensationally energetic, dark and disturbing biopic of one of sport’s darkest hours.
This is a biopic unlike any other. The execution is reminiscent of a Scorsese film, along the lines of Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street (another Robbie masterpiece), but instead of focusing on the indulgence of the job, it focuses on the abuse of its protagonist. I, Tonya is a powerful, haunting and brilliantly hilarious sports romp that manages to deal with some very heavy situations while simultaneously causing you to burst into laughter. Tonya’s partner Jeff plays a dominant role in the story, at first appearing as a game-less love interest, but soon transforming into the pitfall of Tonya’s career and an unfortunate adversary.
Their relationship takes the main focus for most of the movie, but this is far from a romance. It’s their blossoming abuse that plays into the film’s overarching themes, paralleling the sub-plot involving Tonya’s mother, who trod on her daughter’s entire existence ever since the day of her birth, but strangely enough, with good intentions. Roger’s screenplay brings all the shocks, emotion and heart that come with dealing with such a tricky topic, all while showing respect and sympathy for its main characters, who often find themselves misrepresented and, in a way, abused by the media and general public.
Everyone involved is at the peak of their game, all working harmoniously together to create the deranged symphony that is this movie. Set to appropriate 90s music and filmed with a wild, free-roaming, unhinged style, there’s no stopping this film once it gets going. It’s a rollercoaster of excitement and surprises, even for those who think they’ve heard all there is to know about what really went down. Margot Robbie has never been better. It’s the performance of a lifetime, able to convey so much even in the littlest moments. A standout scene is merely an emotional breakdown she manages to subdue during a single take shot looking into the mirror. It’s breathtaking.
This may be Margot Robbie’s movie through and through, but Stan and Janney can’t go without the appropriate recognition. It’s such a different role for Stan, sporting an unforgiving moustache and playing a far more sinisterly-intended character than we’ve seen of him before, but he commits fully and is one of the film’s best elements. Janney, also, is absolutely sensational. Her performance is so big and rambunctious, but deep, troubled and highly sophisticated, and it might just see her take home that much sought after gold statue at the Oscars this March.
Craig Gillespie directs the hell out of this movie. It finds the perfect balance of dark humour and serious emotional stakes, telling this tragedy without making fun of its heroes. Sure, they’re unconventional characters, but the mentality behind them is complex and saddening, leading to a moving and somewhat heartbreaking finale. It’s not without flaw; there’s a lot of dodgy face replacement during the ice skating sequences (but given how fast these characters are skating, it’s easily forgivable), and Bobby Cannavale is in this literally just to explain the plot, but it’s a razor sharp biopic with plenty to say, and I adored it.
4 1/2 Stars
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