In chronicling the rise and precipitous fall of notorious figure skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie), director Craig Gillespie's "I, Tonya" tells a quintessentially American story of class, cycles of abuse, and sensationalist tabloid culture, wrapped up in a barbed, darkly funny, and wildly entertaining package.
"I, Tonya" traces Harding's hardscrabble life from childhood through adulthood, and her involvement in what the participants refer to as "the incident" -- a plot hatched by her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dimwitted associate Shawn Eckardt (a hilarious Paul Walter Hauser) to take down Harding's chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan. That event captured the world's attention, turning Harding into a pariah and national punchline.
The film's narrative is based on hours of interviews screenwriter Steven Rogers conducted with Harding, Gillooly, her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), and a number of key peripheral figures in her life. The actors reenact those interviews throughout the film, speaking directly to the camera and offering their own wildly contradictory accounts, commenting and often disputing the events as we see them unfold.
Growing up in a working class family, Tonya never projected the picture-perfect image of grace and femininity the figure skating community expected from its stars. In her home life, she suffered through a constant stream of abuse, first at the hands of LaVona, then Gillooly, and ultimately the film argues, the American public.
Adding some much-needed context to the portions of the story that would be ingrained in the national consciousness, "I, Tonya" never sets out to exonerate its protagonist. But it does find sympathy for her, introducing its audience to the wounded, flawed human being behind the scandal.
"There's no such thing as 'truth'," Harding says at one point in the story. It's unlikely we'll ever know exactly for sure how much she knew about the plan to sabotage Kerrigan, but in the context of the story Rogers and Gillespie are telling, that hardly matters. It's a smart decision, and one that spares the audience from having to scrutinize everything we see and wonder whether or not this is how things really happened.
The film also reminds us that at the height of her career, Harding truly was one of the country's greatest athletes. One of the film's most heartbreaking scenes comes when she gets the chance to talk about the moment she became the first American woman to land the incredibly difficult triple axel in competition, getting wistful as she admits: "No one ever asks me about that anymore."
Given the opportunity to stretch more as an actress than she's ever been allowed before, Margot Robbie's performance is revelatory. At first the tall, model-beautiful actress seems a poor fit to play Harding, a 5'1," self-proclaimed redneck. But Robbie nails her physicality and gets at the wounded anger and defiance that made Harding such a fierce competitor. It's her pure, desperate determination that ensured she would survive anything that life dished out. And playing a larger-than-life character, Janney finds the sorrow beneath LaVona's tough-as-nails, chain-smoking exterior, and keeps her from turning into a mere caricature.
"I, Tonya" is often hilarious, but it never shies away from the fact that at its heart, the story it's telling is a tragedy. That uneasy balance between tragedy and farce have led some to accuse its treatment of domestic violence as being too flippant. But the filmmakers are never dismissive of the abuse it depicts, which is never less than horrific to witness. That tone is a tricky line to walk, and though Gillespie wobbles every now and then, for the most part he pulls it off (aside from a frustrating tendency to lean on overly obvious soundtrack selections to underscore crucial moments).
Watching the film isn't intended to be an entirely comfortable experience, and it strikes a tone reminiscent of "To Die For" or "The Wolf of Wall Street" -- two other stories centered around charismatic anti-heroes. In its more confrontational moments, I was reminded of Rodney Dangerfield's scenes in "Natural Born Killers," which staged scenes of abuse as a garish sitcom, its laugh track only emphasizing the sheer ugliness on display. It's a technique Gillespie and Rogers clearly took to heart, understanding that it's often the bitter pills whose taste lingers the longest.