I, Tonya: The Greatest Figure Skating Film Ever Made
Review by Aaron Haughton
The bar for figure skating films was relatively low before I, Tonya came along and triple-axeled all over the competition. The film didn't even need to stoop to bashing in the kneecaps of the other contenders either — there just aren't any films about ice skating to the caliber of I, Tonya. Unlike other figure skating films, it doesn't lend itself exclusively to just one genre and has a lot to offer just about everyone. It has a lot of fun embracing the irony and contradictions of the Harding/Kerrigan testimonies, and it's definitely worthy of the hype and praise surrounding it — it is, without a doubt, one of the most wild, comical, and entertaining experiences that 2017 had to offer.
Based on the unbelievably true events of one of the most sensational scandals in sports history, I, Tonya tells the story of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), her relationship with her mother (Allison Janney) and then-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her struggle to break into the skating world, and the media frenzy stirred up by her alleged involvement with the assault on Nancy Kerrigan.
I, Tonya feels like a polyblend of Scorsese films set on ice — mainly, Goodfellas, Casino, and Wolf of Wall Street — rather than one film in particular, but still pops with a freshness all its own. The direction, pacing, and use of score point to Scorsese's influence as a director, but the story itself is so unbelievably wild that it can't be easily eclipsed by the film's borrowed style. The multi-narrative aspect of the story is framed within video testimonials with each individual involved (Tonya, her mother, ex-husband, and skating coach). This approach — which you'll see during the credits was based in reality, no matter how weird it may seem (Tonya's mother and her parrot) — makes for a bit of a slow start, but also allows the audience to directly connect with the characters, who are brimming with personality plus.
The story transcends the Kerrigan attack in its examination of Tonya Harding and her life, highlighting parental and domestic abuse, as well as the superficial injustices that occur in the sport. It doesn’t completely exonerate Harding for her potential involvement in the assault, but it does make you sympathize with her and the circumstances surrounding her untimely demise. Between her mother’s verbal abuse, Gillooly’s physical violence, and the elitist classism of the skating world, Harding never had much of a chance, yet she was able to transcend her unfortunate circumstances and rise to the top. The fact that Harding’s skating career — the only thing she loved, the only thing that was hers, the only thing she was good at — was taken from her because of her a dumb decision on her then-husband’s part makes her downfall all the more devastating. But don’t get it confused, the film is actually quite amusing and uplifting despite the tragedy of its story, thanks to the film’s invigorating pacing and direction.
Gillespie’s direction relies on a lot of movement, mostly trucks in or away from a subject, but he's also versatile enough to pivot and change direction with each digression and character interruption. The film also leans on its score, consisting of classic rock jams, as a source of energy and inspiration/motivation for camera movements, culminating in some very Scorsese-esque montages. The score helps the film find it’s core kinetic feeling, but the selections are often a little too on nose and tend to bury the dialogue at times. The fast and flawless pacing can be accredited to editor Tatiana Riegel, who worked with Gillespie in the past on Lars and the Real Girl, Finest Hour and the Fright Night remake. Her edits reinforce the graceful and figure skater-like musicality of Gillespie’s direction and tie everything neatly together.
The performances in the film are fantastic across the board. Margot Robbie is truly sensational and has reached a whole new level of artistry with her portrayal of Harding. She continues to prove that she’s one of the most versatile actresses working today, but Allison Janney is the true powerhouse here. Her portrayal of LaVonna Harding in the strongest of her long career, but hopefully not the apex. Sebastian Stan also delivered the standout performance of his career, and showcases a lot of comedic and dramatic versatility. Be sure to stay seated during the credits so you can see the actual video testimony from the real people involved; that definitely adds a layer of appreciation for the actors commitment to their roles.
I, Tonya is one riotous good time, and it is absolutely worth the watch. It's grade A cinema, and a fantastic roller coaster ride of laughs. However, cutting through it’s dark comedy is an important message that we should all heed: it only takes one dumb decision to ruin you forever.
Rating: 4.5 triple axels outta 5.
What did you think? Is there a better figure skating film than I, Tonya? Who was the stronger performer: Robbie or Janney? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always remember to viddy well!