The problem with so many biopics is that life usually doesn’t proceed with the convenient clarity of a movie script, with its causes and effects, its spelled-out exposition and shapely character arcs. How refreshing, then, that “I, Tonya” manages to elude claims of absolute veracity in its preamble: We’re informed that the film is “based on the irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gilooly.”
Screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie admit that their biopic is studded with conflicting stories, inconsistent memories and slippery truths. In its unorthodox, stylized, freewheeling manner, it manages to convey the messiness of life better than most biographies in recent memory.
Gillespie switches between genres and tones with a slick confidence, favoring an engrossing pop-cinema package of breezy biopic, faux-documentary and crime caper. We first meet the movie’s major players—Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), her abrasive mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her ex-husband Jeff Gilooly (Sebastian Stan) and others—addressing the camera in static, square-framed medium and wide shots, like interviewees in a documentary about Harding.
Gillespie soon widens both the narrative scope and the aspect ratio: We meet Tonya as a smiling 4-year-old, then a teenager, then an adult, a self-professed unapologetic redneck constantly at odds with the ingrained elegance of her chosen sport. The movie’s signature image may be the close-up of Harding’s skate as it extinguishes a cigarette just before hitting the ice.
Fourth-wall-breaking interruptions from reliably unreliable narrators splinter the otherwise tidy plotting, a wholly appropriate device for these untidy people. As Bobby Cannavale’s unnamed “Hard Copy” reporter says later, of the hit men who clubbed Nancy Kerrigan’s legs, they were “two of the biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs.”
The assault, which the movie’s principals euphemistically call “the incident,” is of course the salacious core of “I, Tonya.” Prior to the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial, it was arguably the most followed true-crime story of the ‘90s, and it cratered Harding’s ascent to the top ranks of the global figure-skating world. She became the first woman to successfully land a triple axel in competition, but that will never be the opening line in her obituary. As she succinctly summarizes in one of the movie’s faux-interview cutaways, “I was loved for a minute, then I was hated, then I was a punch line.”
The “incident,” which occurs at the movie’s midpoint, introduces a pair of memorably bungling criminals and one grandstanding, delusional mastermind named Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), who, in the movie’s telling, goes rogue by ratcheting up a simple scheme to send threatening letters to Kerrigan into a full-throated assault. The movie mostly exonerates Harding from blame, and its overarching magic trick is engendering sympathy for one of the most hated athletes of her decade. Robbie’s award-winning performance alone, full of fire and pathos, spunk and vulnerability, adds a couple of dimensions to the white-trash stereotype cultivated by the media.
It helps that Harding’s backstory is filled obstacles that you wouldn’t wish on your enemies, filmed with startling, revelatory rawness. We see her being sexually abused by her stepbrother, physically abused by Jeff and mentally and physically abused by LaVona, a crude, tactless stage mother played with pitiless majesty by Allison Janney.
Robbie’s Harding is deeply flawed. In her self-pitying worldview, as a frequent second-place finisher, nothing was ever her fault, the playing field was never level, and the judges were always out to get her. But she’s also inspirational. Surrounded by monsters for much of her life, she gives as well as receives, fighting back with gusto. It’s enough to make you believe the deck really was stacked against her in many ways.
When she takes to the ice, her legs slice the air like machetes, and Gillespie’s camera swirls around her like a gladiator in the ring, her movements a graceful counterpoint to the heavy-metal selections that inspired each of them. “I, Tonya” may be, in large part, a comedy, but its heroine is no punch line.
“I, Tonya” opens Friday, Jan. 5 at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas in Jupiter, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, and additional theaters in Miami-Dade.