By Marc S. Sanders
The will to commit wrongdoing must stem from somewhere; an outside influence or perhaps a genetic makeup, or both. I think I, Tonya suggests it’s central character suffered under the former possibility. Outsiders put former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding where she is today with a reputation forever scrutinized and forever tarnished.
Margot Robbie was unjustly denied of the 2017 Academy Award that went to a been there, done that Frances McDormand for the horrible Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Margot Robbie is one of the most beautiful and talented actresses working today. This film puts her into the stratosphere. Robbie is unrecognizable beneath the punishing white trash persona of the infamous Tonya Harding. She is unrecognizable in caked on makeup, awful periodic perm haircuts, chain smoking, excess drinking and terrible dietary habits that include a shameless plug for Dove chocolate bars.
Harding is forever notoriously linked to the knee bash heard round the world victimizing her Olympic competition, Nancy Kerrigan. Margot Robbie does not hold back in displaying Harding’s lack of class and elegance expected in the sport of women’s figure skating. It’s what Tonya Harding lacks that blocks her from the fame and success expected to come with being a champion athlete. Robbie is fantastic about surrendering her character’s talents for short tempered flare ups, crass behavior and a filthy mouth. Her facial expressions are shocking. Stretched fake, Cheshire Cat grins with bulging eyes pull at the pressure Tonya suffered under a hateful mother’s thumb, and an equally abhorrent, stupid husband. She is forever naïve to how the judges never put her above the competition in points. I mean this is the only woman to ever successfully accomplish the triple axle!!!
Equally astonishing is Allison Janey as Tonya’s mother LaVona Harding, an incredibly cruel woman hell bent on making sure Tonya skates for the sole opportunity to endlessly torment her only daughter physically and, even worse, mentally. Janey joins the exclusive club of cinematic great villains. This is an unsympathetic woman with no drive to be better at anything except increasing her abuse upon Tonya. It’s a shocking performance. Janey appears so comfortable in the cruel insults, offensive language, and non stop smoking all the while her pet parrot sits atop her shoulder. LaVona is uncompromising in how she punches, throws plates or even tosses a steak knife at her hated daughter. What a horrible person, and what an amazing performance. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better antagonist in a film these days.
Sebastian Stan chose wisely to accept the role of Jeff Galooley. It’s a great departure from the Marvel superhero films. Jeff is a dumb, needy, abusive husband to Tonya; the man who admitted to being the orchestrator of the knee bash (though the movie will tell you it’s not that simply explained). Stan should have been nominated at least. It’s not easy to play such a dumb, real life moron, and he excels in the role. What an asshole Jeff Galooley was; what a dumb asshole actually. He, along with his conspirators, have great chemistry in idiotic planning. Stan really shows his best moments when he’s being reckless with his rag doll wife, Tonya. The physical domestic fights are so well edited amid rock ballads from Fleetwood Mac, Laura Brannigan, ZZ Top, and Supertramp.
Director Craig Gillespie follows the breakneck formula of Martin Scorsese with character interviews, racing steady cams that convinced me that Robbie is as talented a skater herself as Harding was. She has so many levels of erratic fear, insecurity and tempers. The method of filmmaking here seems like a slight nod to Raging Bull. Gillespie takes advantage of all that Robbie brings to the camera. It’s a perfect marriage of director and actor; as perfect as DeNiro & Scorsese or DiCaprio & Scorsese. I hope Robbie & Gillespie will be teaming up again soon.
Once again, I have to ask. How in the hell does that piece of celluloid waste called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri get a Best Picture nomination when as far as I’m concerned, I, Tonya clearly stands much higher above it in terms of craft, writing, performance and filmmaking????? It astounds me.
I, Tonya is without a doubt one of the ten best films of 2017. I can’t wait to see it again. It’s unbelievably good.
Footnote: Do I think any differently or sympathize with Tonya Harding now that I’ve seen this depiction? I don’t think so. She is clearly a woman who was never given a fair chance at a happy life. She was destructive to herself as much as those that surrounded her. Yet, she had to also accept responsibility for her actions and behavior. Any of this could have gone differently. If only these people were not so stupid or irresponsible. These people, Tonya Harding included, all had choices to make. They could have chosen a different option time and again. Despite some of the positions Craig Gillispie’s film takes, I truly believe Tonya Harding could have opted for a different path while combating her inner and outer demons.