Ice Queen: Sad, brash, blisteringly funny "I, Tonya" avoids being by-the-numbers biopic

I, Tonya (2017)
119 min., rated R.

“I, Tonya” is the clear-eyed cinematic portrait of former competitive figure skater Tonya Harding that you probably didn't think you needed. It not only makes one think about Tonya Harding again, but it makes one care and reconsider her in a different light. As written by Steven Rogers (2015’s “Love the Coopers”) and directed by Craig Gillespie (2016’s “The Finest Hours”), the film is anything but a stodgy, superficial, paint-by-numbers biopic. It chronicles the figure skater’s fame and fall from grace, sure, but “I, Tonya” is more of a brash, blisteringly funny and just plain sad tragicomedy, a slice of lurid pop culture history that unfortunately turned Tonya Harding into tabloid fodder, dubbing her a punchline and a villain. Fortunately, the filmmakers have more interest in making Tonya a flawed yet empathetic human being divided from the rest of her competitors by class and presentation, with a never-better performance from Margot Robbie, and crafting what might just be the last word in this particular tabloid story.

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was born to skate. It was her perpetually soused, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed and abusive mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), who forced skating instructor Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) to take on Tonya as a student, and at only 4 years old, she won her first competition. As a child and into her teenage years, she received verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her mother. Once she was old enough to date (yet not old enough to go on a date without the accompaniment of LaVona), Tonya fell for the mustachioed Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) with whom she would share a codependent and ultimately destructive on-again, off-again, on-again relationship. Jeff and Tonya got married anyway, and then in 1991, Tonya won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship and became the first woman to complete a triple axel at 19 years old. And then, everything changed on January 6, 1994 with “The Incident,” an orchestrated knee-clubbing attack on Tonya's competitor Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) after a practice at the U.S. Nationals in Detroit. Jeff and his bumbling friend and Tonya’s “bodyguard,” Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who saw himself as a secret agent, had set out to just mail death threats to Nancy, but Shawn ended up hiring a couple of “hit men” who would send a severe message but forget to cover their tracks. Tonya was aware of Jeff and Shawn’s original plan, but even if she wasn't physically involved in Nancy's injury, she may as well have been as this off-the-rink scandal would lead to the end of her career from being banned for life from the Ice Skating Association.

Based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews," “I, Tonya” sets out to reveal with an irreverent framing device how skewed the truth of certain events can be when told from person to person. With conflicting unreliable narrators in present-day interviews that were recreated and imagined from real transcripts, screenwriter Steven Rogers structures Tonya Harding’s story in a fractured way that presents every side and perception of the sensationalistic story, including the point-of-view of a "Hard Copy" journalist (Bobby Cannavale), but ultimately lets audiences decide for themselves. As the viewer watches Tonya rise and fall, the film mocks the “boobs” surrounding her—Jeff, Shawn and one of Shawn’s inept goons, Shane Stant (Ricky Russert)—without making fun of Tonya herself. At the same time, Tonya is never off the hook and never asks for the viewer’s sympathy, as she acts coy and rarely accepts anything being her fault. Characters also shape their own narrative and paint themselves in a better light by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera directly. When Jeff tells us that Tonya nearly blew his head off with a shotgun, Tonya pipes in before taking another shot, “I never did this.” Later, when Tonya trains hard in the woods for the Olympics, coach Diane vouches for her: “She actually did this.” And, in the most meta of examples, LaVona states with snark halfway through her interview, “Well, my storyline is disappearing right now.” It's a storytelling device that could have been too clever by half or grown tiresome in its artifice, but director Craig Gillespie uses it sparingly in ways that are insightful through the prism of a sardonic satire.

Electrifying, sympathetic and unsentimental, Margot Robbie is already at the top of her game and she only broke out four years ago with "The Wolf of Wall Street." Though many deemed the star to be too gorgeous to pull off playing Tonya Harding, Robbie admirably deglamorizes herself for the hard-edged honesty of the role and trained for three months on the ice. Transcending surface-level impersonation, she never falls into the trap of an actor obviously acting when taking on the daunting task of playing a real person. Beyond the physical and technical transformation, Robbie commits tooth and nail to bring out Tonya’s fiery, driven nature and profane, temperamental demeanor that are deepened with sorrow and the abuse she has received from both her mother and her idiot boyfriend-turned-husband. As Tonya puts it, “Nancy gets hit one time and the whole world shits. For me, it’s an all-the-time occurrence.” Like her real-life counterpart on the ice, this Tonya holds no apologies for her “white-trash” upbringing, wanting to skate to ZZ Top in competitions and wearing homemade costumes, and yet the judges do not score her fairly because Tonya did not fit into the pristine image they wanted. In a moment before the Olympics, Robbie movingly displays Tonya's pain that cannot be hidden behind an ice-ready smile and some overdone make-up in the mirror, but it's not until the third-act courtroom scene that breaks hearts, as skating was all Tonya knew, only for her to see it taken away from her.

First glimpsed in the interview framework like a Wes Anderson character with a parakeet named Little Man perched on her shoulder, Allison Janney gets to be showy and ferociously tears it up as LaVona Harding, an acerbic, uncompromising monster of a mother whose material instincts have been replaced with extremely tough love and bullying methods. As she says, Tonya skated better when she was enraged, and at one point, she pays off a spectator in the stands to heckle her daughter before taking the ice. LaVona could been remained virtually irredeemable or come off larger-than-life, but Janney completely immerses herself into this character that every verbal and physical act of cruelty comes from a frighteningly real place without seeming like a caricature of the real person. Even when young Tonya expressed that she had to use the bathroom after a long practice on the ice, LaVona would tell her daughter, “Skate wet.” Rounding out the sterling cast, Sebastian Stan embodies Tonya’s first love/husband/ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, as a sleazy, if seemingly harmless, dummy with a volatility and violent streak while still managing to bring extra layers to him; Paul Walter Hauser is hilariously moronic as wannabe secret agent Shawn Eckhardt; Julianne Nicholson is felicitous casting, looking like every skating coach, and excellent in her own right as the warm Diane Rawlinson; and Mckenna Grace (2017’s “Gifted”) brings a touching sense of heartache to young Tonya, especially as she pleads for her father to stay as he leaves his daughter with LaVona.

“I, Tonya” might have been a strong performance showcase and nothing else, but that’s not the case here. A somewhat pedestrian filmmaker in the past (2007’s quirky “Lars and the Real Girl” and the solid 2011 “Fright Night” remake were surprising exceptions), Craig Gillespie brings a blackly comic tone, a propulsive pace and forceful, frenzied energy with cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis’ camera constantly moving even when it’s not gliding around Tonya on the ice. The period details of the late 1980s and early ‘90s—acid-wash denim and frizzy hair—are authentic without coming off parodic, and the selection of song choices are on the money, including Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman,” Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet,” Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” If there are any nits to pick with the production, there are a few noticeable instances of CGI for face replacements on Robbie’s face during the otherwise seamlessly rendered and exhilarating skating scenes. The film has been dubbed “‘Goodfellas’ on ice,” and while that isn’t an unfair assessment—influences to not only Martin Scorsese but the Coen brothers, too, are detected—it would narrow the focus to “The Incident” when that’s not Tonya's whole story. Neither damning nor exonerating its real-life figure, “I, Tonya” presents a driven, once-accomplished athlete who was fatally a product of her environment and a victim of circumstance. Not always a graceful swan and decidedly not infallible, Tonya Harding still deserves to be remembered for her self-made accomplishments over her damaged reputation. 

Grade: B +