Disclosure: Tim League co-owns NEON and Birth.Movies.Death.
How’s this for a heap of hyperbole – Margot Robbie may just yet save Hollywood. At only 27 years old she’s killed it in a Scorsese movie, elevated a dreadful WB flick by her very presence, rocked a bathtub in The Big Short, made Will Smith look good in Focus and brought big guns to the severely underloved Z For Zachariah.
But it’s here, with I, Tonya, that we’re gifted with the real ramifications of her talent. For this isn’t only one of the smartest, most sardonic performances of the year, it’s also a film she helped shepherd along as producer. All this from a work that takes tabloid fodder and shapes it into nothing less than a comic touchstone.
From the outset the opening title card speaks of “irony free” interviews done by the original characters at the heart of one of the most covered sports scandals of all time. For those blissfully unaware, Tonya Harding was a pioneering figure skater who overcame much to succeed in the world of her sport, only to have her career come crashing down with the attack on fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan.
Twenty years after the fact we meet Tonya (Robbie) at her kitchen table, cracking wise about her past and telling her own story. We hear from her withering mother LaVona (Allison Janney), shown with a bird nibbling her ear. Meanwhile, her unfortunately facial haired ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) seems incredulous that his last name has become a verb, as to take out a competitor is to be Gillooly’d. The puffy-faced Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) rants about conspiracy theories while taking credit for the chaos caused. It’s a disparate group of misfits all with a story to tell.
And what a tale it is, for beyond the headlines this is a complex story of abuse, courage, outrageous incompetence, and unfairness at the deepest levels regarding the poison of public schadenfreude. This is a sports film and a gangster flick in one, teased with the satire of a mockumentary but fueled by the frisson that this all happened pretty much as articulated.
Robbie’s take as Harding is epic, from her broad smiles as she lands a triple axel to the pain expressed when her husband shoves her head into a wall. Yet it’s one moment later in the film, as to camera she calls even the audience on their shit, where the film is elevated to stratospheric levels.
These asides and breakings of the fourth wall should be mere artifice, but here they work as brilliantly as in Goodfellas or the aforementioned Big Sick. It seems near impossible that this was written by Steven Rogers, the scribe behind dreck like Hope Floats, P.S. I Love You and Step Mom. Director Craig Gillespie did make the strange gem that is Lars and the Real Girl, but his last works The Finest Hours and Million Dollar Arm hardly instilled confidence that he’d be the one to help a film this good.
Yet here we are, with I, Tonya. It helps that the treasure and comic genius that is Allison Janney creates one of the greatest on-screen mother roles in history, while Robbie humanizes someone who, for many, is a monster. This is a film that helps rewrites the history not for reasons of aggrandizement but to force viewers to question their own prejudices and misconceptions.
Just as Harding isn’t who we expect, I, Tonya belies our expectations of what we’re going to get from a film about this subject. Superficially Robbie herself may be pigeonholed by some, but any with eyes will see in this role the firm establishment of a fiercely intelligent star/filmmaker, one who with any justice will for decades be balancing between her works in blockbuster cinema and more intimate fare such as this. We take for granted that the likes of Brad Pitt and George Clooney can effortlessly do this sort of thing, and Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie have had their share of this kind of drive. Yet in Robbie we are witnessing an entirely new talent emerging, showcasing her humour and grace, all in a film unafraid to assault you when it needs to.
This is a film as sharp as the skates Harding wears. Robbie is revelatory, Janney just amazing and the rest of the cast is equal to the task of bringing this amazingly American tale to life. Touching upon class, competition, courage and catastrophe, we are treated to a great film that sticks its landing perfectly.