The addictively Ill-tempered I, Tonya imagines itself as a wildly speculative critique of the biopic formula. That said, while it focuses on Tonya Harding and is at its best when focused on her, she is not primarily in the film’s crosshairs. It might be more accurately said that the film weaponizes the media frenzy around Tonya Harding as a way to yolk Billy Wilder’s scabrous journalist-carcass scavenger Ace in the Hole with, well, Billy Wilder’s equally scabrous showbiz-psycho-circus Sunset Boulevard. Yolk to effects that, of course, aren’t nearly as monumentally well-crafted or psychologically inquisitive as either of those films. Not to mention effects that are much, much more scattershot. But, to a point, that’s acceptable for Craig Gillespie’s rabble-rouser, which analyzes a scattershot world. Steven Rogers’ script and Gillespie’s direction are punchy and slovenly in equal measure, and there’s a formal combustibility brewing throughout that both mirrors Harding’s cathartically unpracticed, spontaneous rage and animates wider questions about the chaotic instability of memory, journalism, and subjectivity.
Even better, I, Tonya analyzes a society without having to dissect it, without turning Harding into a Parable For Our Times and thereby flattening her particularity with the imposed weight of National Crisis a la the OJ Simpson-focused season of American Crime Story. While the latter strives to ennoble the television anthology with a literary perfectionism and pristine grandeur, I, Tonya, not unlike its namesake, has no qualms hitting below the belt. More accurately, it admits that it hits below the belt, that its characters are sketchy, unformed caricatures, and while American Crime Story back-peddles into its own superficiality, I, Tonya careens into with a virulent gusto that occasionally approximates legitimate thoughtfulness.
If that sounds like a lot, well, I, Tonya doesn’t sweat the details. It’s indescribably showy, spreading its nozzle at class dynamics, gender performance, childhood trauma, and the mercurial instabilities of news-making and personal subjectivity. It never chooses laser-honed precision when this bucking bronco of a biopic can turn to rapid-fire cinematic style and squirrely spasms of genuine wit. As a biopic of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), the unvarnished working-class figure skater who became the first American woman to nail the daunting triple axel on record, it’s vastly less interested in nailing the specifics than in questioning the specifics, both to its benefit and detriment.
Admittedly, Gillespie’s film isn’t so much questioning the biopic form as scribbling in the margins with pseudo-radical intent, donning Harding’s (lack of) airs to play the foul-mouthed, trashy, ugly duckling to the kind of stilted, practiced, ultimately constipated prestige picture biopic the film probably feels is more akin to Harding’s opponent, Nancy Kerrigan. A feud, incidentally, the film is certainly less interested in than the attitude around the feud. Self-consciously brazen and cutting, I, Tonya delights in marrying the push-pull of Harding’s home life and rags-to-circus story to an assault on the audience and media spectatorship, most overtly when Harding stares at the camera and calls the film viewers her attackers as well.
That gesture is appreciated, especially insofar it redraws our analysis toward the classist implications of the film’s story which itself uses the fossil fuel of white-trash abuse to animate audience entertainment and fascination. In other words, the film’s pop-post-modernism is hypocritical, certainly, and more acerbically amusing than truly revelatory, but it’s at least doing something in arguably the most talent-strapped Oscarbait genre in all of cinema, the biopic. And on balance, the film’s cheeky indictment of viewing practices graces the film with a slippery meta-textual instability when, for instance, one character in present-day interview explains how Harding took a shotgun to him, only for the film’s Harding in the ‘90s to enact the shotgun gesture and then turn to the camera to proclaim that she never actually did it.
Again, over-baked stuff, but appreciable in its own way, although I remain uncertain whether the film is truly committed to its post-modern gambits. Nothing in the film, for instance, critiques Harding’s persona as itself a performance, with the film (more banally) suggesting instead that Harding was simply “being herself” and that the media felt both enraptured by her passion and working-class elan and threatened by her undoctored attitude of feral womanhood which privileged traditionally masculine vocal, physical, and attitudinal registers over acquiescent restraint, daintiness, and composure. She’s a carnal go-getter, this film’s Harding is. And while the film mines this territory as a commentary on the media’s fascination with a woman who is truly willing to go the extra mile to succeed in an industry that barely sublimates its disinclination to admit her, the film also privileges Harding as the only honest figure in the room, the only truly sane person in an American asylum.
Comparatively, the film’s serious diagnosis of class in America butts heads with its mirthfully misanthropic attitude, morally mapping Tonya as superior to, for instance, her mother LaVona Golden, played by Allison Janney. And Tonya exists in an entirely different universe from Paul Walter Hauser’s characters, a bodyguard friend of Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) who orchestrates the beating of Nancy Kerrigan that made Tonya so infamous. If Tonya is a tragic anti-hero, this man is a fool, and Golden a vile Gorgon, suggesting that the film’s allegiances to Tonya and its disdain for the WASPY appearance-focused dismissiveness of the skating commission buckle when they would sabotage the film’s apparently stronger desire to mock or cower at most of the working-class figures around Tonya.
So, although Janney’s performance won the raves, the film uses her not, like Harding and Gillooly, as indifferently self-reflective unreliable narrators and/or unquiet youths struggling to understand their place in the world, rebels with and without causes who are, in Harding’s case specifically, eaten up by a society they exist at a perpendicular angle to. The film at least affords them some flexible internal subjectivity, some agency to reorient the narrative, or at least to be misunderstood, to intimate reservoirs beyond the camera’s immediate access. Comparatively, Golden remains a grotesque waxwork, a ghoul of sorts even when ostensibly unmediated by another character’s story in “present-tense” interview scenes. Perhaps this is a self-conscious reminder on the film’s behalf that even these present-day framing scenes are caricatured and filtered through decades of social bias and media ravenousness? Or might it just be lazy screenwriting?
I don’t know what the proper protocol is here, except to note that the film laminates itself in heavy veneer of self-reflexive auto-critique, where any indifferent line or judgmental perspective doubles as a refraction of one character’s perspective on reality, massaging an obvious weakness into a possible strength. Which speaks to a certain slippery slope between lazy auto-critique/viewer indictment and genuine analysis. Sometimes, it seems like an alibi rather than genuine self-implication, vacillating, sometimes illegibly, between a genuine, and genuinely dangerous, enthusiasm to question its own veracity – a la Welles’ F for Fake – and, on the other hand, a more conventional attempt to machete through the layers of media interpretation to locate “the truth” in relatively unquestioned quantities. For instance, in the finale, when the film doles out a fairly rote psychological justification for Harding’s post-fame turn to boxing (“violence is what I always knew anyway”), the film shores this bromide by filtering it through Harding’s own mouth, framing it subjectively as Harding’s cunningly simplistic self-presentation designed to encourage empathy. But is that enough to excuse the dime-store psychology?
It’s all fairly adolescent, all things considered, and while the film aims for a dialectic of sincerity and snark, frankly, it’s often on surer footing when it cuts through its own mask of irony and explores its latent social anxieties about who belongs and who doesn’t. The film exhibits a nervousness about the fluidity of class, evoking the performative nature of respectability that the skating judges trade on while intimating the peculiar interplay wherein class is contradictorily constructed both rigidly (through a feigned naturalness, as though you have it or you don’t) and through the unstated belief that it has to be performative and fluid (that the poor can “learn it”). Thus, the film most deserves our attention when it isn’t as busy actively courting it.
Admittedly, the film’s extreme tonal spasms seem to be striving for a more serious dialectic than they let on, mimicking Harding’s emotional uncertainty by attempting to simultaneously fawn over and mock the audience’s pretensions, mimicking the adoration-derision circularity of her life. Likewise, other moments treat ice-skating, and Harding’s emotions, more seriously. An early roving-camera skate vigorously backed by ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag” is the rare moment where the film’s free-wheeling charisma switches out of attack mode without sacrificing its giddy effervescence. Switching tempos from fangs-drawn to truly effervescent, the film gleefully realizes skating as something someone might actually enjoy, as a momentary fount of emancipation from the daily doldrums and trauma of everyday existence, and as a crucial pas de deux between rigorous planning and emotional spontaneity.
Moments of such supreme sincerity do ring out in the end, undercutting and enlivening the film’s coating of ironic assault by revealing a fragile under-layer desperate, like Tonya, to burst out of the shell of self-encased irony. An irony that the film, at its most pungent, reveals is essentially a toxic self-defense mechanism for a modern world, and for modern women like Tonya Harding. Ultimately, I, Tonya doesn’t really infiltrate the biopic milieu. It isn’t a revolution, nor is it even very insurrectionary, and its insistence on its own low-class indifference to conventional respectable cinematic norms somehow still seems showy and prestige-baiting, an inverse bid for authenticity in an era where Oscarbait is increasingly understood as hollow and packaged. But the film kicks like a mule, and flaws aside, it’s never less than spirited, especially for an Oscarbait picture.