I, Tonya is as much about violence as it is skating, if not more so. The movie certainly does feature many scenes of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) thrusting herself along the ice, but it has even more moments in which she gets slapped around by her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) or punched by her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).
So it’s more than a little disingenuous when, near the end of the movie, present day Tonya states that her fall from potential gold medalist to pop culture punch-line was like being abused. “Only this time it was you. All of you,” she declares, looking directly at the camera; “You’re all my attackers too.”
Clearly, director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) intends the accusation to land at the audience’s feet. But the charge doesn’t stick. After all, the audience didn’t decide to set scenes of Jeff beating Tonya to a soundtrack of 70s AM hits. We didn’t linger on Janney’s outsized performance, letting the movie marinate in every one of her verbal barbs. And we certainly decide to distract from the emotional power of Jeff’s post-divorce breakdown by shooting the the sequence in a single unbroken take.
Had the camera held still for a moment or had the pop song been removed, the audience might get a chance to connect with Stan’s performance as a self-professed nice guy who thinks his proclamations of love excuse his constant abuse. He’s doing something really interesting there, but the movie too often focuses on his silly voice and goofy mustache, reducing him to a figure from a 1994 Saturday Night Live sketch. The film threatens to do the same with Janney, taking full pleasure in her foul mouth and cigarette drags, but giving the great actor few opportunities to ground her character.
One gets the sense that Gillespie wanted all the side characters to follow the lead of Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Shawn Eckardt — Gillooly’s best friend and the “mastermind” behind the Nancy Kerrigan attack. Hauser gets a few good laughs as a man whose physique and intelligence undermines his boasts, but its a purely comedic performance, unsuited to the film’s expressed moral or thematic concerns.
Fortunately, I, Tonya gives far more leeway to its Tonya, and Robbie is more than up to the task. She channels the manic energy she gave to prior roles into Harding’s refusal to submit to a system that’s rigged against blue color skaters like her, no matter how hard working or talented. She finds pockets of vulnerability for Tonya, somehow convincingly playing both a teenager awkwardly demurring at Gillooly’s charms and a top-level athlete falling apart on Olympic ice. Robbie matches the graceful dynamism Gillespie uses when shooting Tonya’s routines, communicating the character’s passion and cockiness with a smile full of clenched teeth.
Perhaps appropriately, its these moments, with Tonya dominating the rink, that the movie works best. Gillespie’s camera glides across the ice, sometimes barely keeping up with Harding’s strides, but always conveying to the audience exactly what we need to know. When we watch those scenes, we believe Tonya to be exactly who she says she is: a world-class figure skater, not a no-class punching bag.
But these moments are few, buried under snarky humor and half-hearted metatextual gestures, most of which emphasize the very culture the character wants her audience to disregard.
So when Tonya declares that it feels like she’s again being abused, she’s not really looking out through the screen — she’s not condemning the viewer. No, she’s looking at the camera, and the filmmakers behind it, who are more interested in crass jokes about her suffering than in the story Tonya tells when she lands a triple axel and explodes with unbridled glee.