TIFF Review: Margot Robbie scores gold in Tonya Harding biopic ‘I, Tonya’

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You could almost hear the collective groan when it was announced that Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) would be directing a biopic of infamous figure skater Tonya Harding for the big screen. It came about in a resurgence of interest around her, from a 30 For 30 documentary that aired in primetime about the “incident,” in which associates of Harding’s ex-husband knee-capped her figure-skating rival Nancy Kerrigan, to the general fact that the 25th anniversary of the incident is coming up in 2019, and there’s nothing better for ticket sales and page views than by making Gen X’ers feel old. Anyways, Gillespie cast Margot Robbie in the lead role in his film, now titled I, Tonya, and I believe that was when the cultural winds began to shift a little bit. It was announced that it’d premiere at TIFF this year, amongst a bevy of other sports movies — Borg/McEnroe, Molly’s Game, Battle of the Sexes — and it slowly became the talk of the festival. I can tell you for sure that I, Tonya is the best and most entertaining of the sports movies I saw at TIFF this past week, even if it might not be as good as the other stuff I saw overall at the festival, and that it won’t be a waste of your time whenever it comes out.

It helps dramatically that Gillespie got the casting absolutely right. Robbie is, without a doubt, incredible here. She’s able to make a previously inaccessible heel figure in American sports feel fully realized, going against twenty three-or-so years of media conditioning and humiliation that’s prevented us from really reckoning with the legacy of the incident. Stoneham native Kerrigan is almost a non-figure here, appearing once in a flashback, once when she gets kneecapped by a MK-Ultra-styled Detroit dipshit, and once when she’s accepting the silver medal at the ‘94 Olympics, so it really is her show, almost exclusively. She has an extraordinary gift for making her characters feel fully realized and tragic (yes, that even includes Suicide Squad, sadly enough), and she takes moments that made her a cultural pariah — her crying to the judges at the Olympics about her skates’ laces, or her fights earlier on with the judges at a championship over their scoring — and translate them into effective emotional beats that workin the larger context of her performance. She plays Harding as the full-redneck that she’s inclined to say that she is — goin’ muddin’ on the weekends and wearing rabbit-fur coats that she helped to hunt herself in the Oregon wilderness — and portrays her as an upstart and strong young woman, who is beset on all sides by the abusive monsters in her life.

Those figures, her mother (Allison Janney) and her first husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), are portrayed here with an element of comedy and an element of menace. Janney uses her dry wit and deadpan like a knife here, and she’d easily be the standout of this film if a lesser actress had been cast in the lead role. She’s done up in the traditional ’70s mom fashion, looking a bit like the Log Lady from Twin Peaks if, instead of a log, she carried around a small brown cigarette everywhere she went. She wants better for her daughter, but has absolutely no idea how to give it to her — she thinks her own nice childhood was to blame for her own lack of success in life — and applies that kind of thinking to her parenting approach, which means frequent beatings and scoldings for Tonya, all the while holding her personal sacrifices for Tonya’s figure-skating career over her head like a knife-covered pendulum. Tonya sees Gillooly, a weak fool of a redneck man, as a way out of that horrible part of her life, and unfortunately she trades in her abusive mother for an abusive idiot whom at least she can fight back against with her knees and, depending on who you believe, a shotgun. It’s Gillooly and his idiot friend who conspire to ruin her life by making it better for her, and it’s fucking painful to watch their dumbass plan come together. Stan’s fine, and there are moments when he disappears into the character, moustache and all, but it’s never enough to compete with the standouts here.

Gillespie’s direction is solid, for the most part, though his faux-documentary device doesn’t necessarily work at every single point, especially when he has Robbie break the fourth wall in the past to finish the thought of her present self. There’s a solid reason why Scorsese uses his narration in the way that he does — it’d be so painfully fucking distracting if we kept cutting back to Old Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street, and it would completely fuck up the momentum of the film. A more traditional yet judicious approach might have helped at these moments, but there’s enough there in the present-day flash-forwards that works that it’d be a shame to lose all of it.

What’s nice to see in a biopic of this magnitude is that it never lets the audience off the hook for their part in making this woman’s life a living hell, and that’s even if you believe she might have had something to do with the “incident.” Sure, on some level it is a hagiography; Harding’s shifting of the blame for anything she’s done over the course of her life is generally excused here and presented as gospel, and the director and screenwriter both buy into her specific victimization (they bring up this perspective at the start of the film and never specifically interrogate it after that one minute), she does have a very legitimate point. She traded one abuser that she was given from birth for another dumber one, and because of his actions and the actions of other idiot men, the entire country hurled abuse on her, to the point where the only way she could make any money after the fallout came at the gloved fists of other women. If anything, I’d argue that Gillespie doesn’t go far enough in his indictment of our cultural shaming of “bad women,” though I suppose one should be happy that he even mentions this at all.

I, Tonya is an interesting and lively look at one of the most divisive figures in sports history, and it’s going to be fascinating to see the cultural reaction to this, especially in light of the other sports films it’ll be forever remembered standing beside. It understands its central character in a way that Aaron Sorkin will never, ever be able to understand a female lead, and it asks us to judge the cultural responses between John McEnroe’s outbursts at judges and audiences and Harding’s herself. It’s one hell of a watch, and I highly recommend you check it out when it hits. And if you have a fat guy in your life who says he contracts for governments all over the world and traffics in murder, I’d suggest you start running for the hills now.

Featured image via TIFF. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus, and recap all our TIFF 2017 coverage here.