I, Tonya could be this year's unlikeliest Oscar contender. Premiering this past weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival, Craig Gillespie's dark comedy is based on the 2016 Black List script by Steven Rogers about the disgraced former figure skater Tonya Harding, whose involvement in the maiming of her chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan, engulfed the 1994 Olympics with lurid controversy and tabloid melodrama.
Starring Margot Robbie in a spectacular performance, the movie plays violence for laughs—but the surprise of the gambit is that it, somehow, Gillespie manages to make it work.
The film opens with a disclaimer: "Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly." What unspools is a ferociously entertaining dark comedy that details one of America's most outrageous media spectacles of the '90s. In 1991, Harding became the first American woman to complete a triple axel jump. A two-time Olympian, Harding was banned from skating after her ex-husband, Gillooly, hired an assailant to break Nancy Kerrigan's leg, to prevent her from competing in the 1994 games.
Up there with the O.J. Simpson trial and the Monica Lewinsky affair, the Nancy Kerrigan "incident"—as the movie's characters resentfully label it—became the media's prime focus and fascination that year. Because the story involved a sports rivalry and two highly competitive women, the event has become synonymous with the word "catfight," a definitive saga in the annals of girl-on-girl warfare.
Of course, in our foggy cultural memory punctuated by memes (google "Nancy Kerrigan Why me?"), it can be hard to remember all of the details as they really happened. Gillespie's movie aims to right these misconceptions, portraying Tonya as a sympathetic, though complexly dark victim of society's class prejudices, as well as the cycles of domestic abuse that short-circuited her life and career. We watch her grow up with her hysterically abusive mother, LaVona, played with an acid wit by Allison Janney. "You skated like a graceless dyke," she tells her young daughter over dinner. (Later, she throws a steak knife at Tonya and sticks the landing.) The slapstick nature of the movie's domestic violence was understandably off-putting to some critics: Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson tweeted that the movie is "cheap, cruel, and stupid."
Yet, the movie succeeds not in spite of these elements, but because of them. Gillespie's gaze never cuts away from the casual violence that made Harding a lifelong underdog, without turning things maudlin. The bluntness and omnipresence of violence is rattling, and makes for surprisingly visceral dramatic comedy. Tonya dishes out as much as she takes; the film later offers it as a reason for her late-career attempt at women's boxing. It's a reminder of why comedic violence has been a staple of the movies since the Three Stooges—sometimes the act of hurting people looks as stupid as it actually is.
Tonya's cautionary tale is spun through a prism of aesthetic filters—mockumentary, narrative drama, performance footage, TV broadcast, VHS deposition testimony among them—so that the effect can come across as wildly incongruous. How does a viewer's eye rectify naturally lit 35mm scenes with the digital HD skating sequences, in which Robbie's face is clearly transposed onto somebody else's body?
Disjointed as it is, I, Tonya's tumultuous presentation does mimic Tonya's off-the-rails life, and stands out as a true creative risk in a sea of towering assertions of drama and style in Toronto this week. It's all anchored by a show-stopping performance from Robbie, who may not physically resemble Harding but inhabits a hurricane of insecurity, blame, frustration, and grit, while keeping her entirely humane. For the first time ever, you actually find yourself rooting for Tonya Harding.
The audience at the film's premiere screening was split, vocal in both their praise and dissent throughout the screening, but Robbie's performance was a consensus. She gives a movie star performance in a creatively risky film. It's her first release as a producer under her newly minted LuckyChap Entertainment, and the distribution rights were just picked up by NEON (Beach Rats, Ingrid Goes West). It will be interesting to see, come Oscar season, if the risk pays off.
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