Featured Posts

Reviews Load More

Features Load More

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Review: I, TONYA is a Surprising Exploration of Abuse and the Truth

If you were alive in 1994, you remember Tonya Harding, the American ice skating Olympian who, in some form or fashion, caused her main rival Nancy Kerrigan to be attacked during her training. The attack and the pair's athletic rivalry caught the attention of the world and the budding 24-hour news cycle. The story is a strange and confusing one, made all the more so by the conflicting accounts given by Harding and her then husband Jeff Gillooly. In Craig Gillespie's new biopic I, Tonya, he and screenwriter Steven Rogers try to cobble together a coherent story from these accounts, exploring Harding's family history and frustrations as well.

I, Tonya begins with Harding (Margot Robbie) as a toddler, when she first started skating competitively, beating out girls twice her age. Her mother (Allison Janney) is not one to mollycoddle her daughter, often pushing her past her limits and insisting that she "skated best when she was angry." She meets her future husband in Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) as a teenager, and their young romance is fraught with violence and explosive conflict. These troubles are exacerbated by the fact that despite Harding's incredible athletic ability–she was the first woman in history to land the incredibly difficult triple axel jump in competition–she scored below more "traditional" girls that could afford fancy costumes and didn't self-identify as a redneck. All this leads up to the infamous attack on Kerrigan, and the resulting fallout that got Harding banned from competitively skating for life.

The opening text of the film states that the film is based on wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly, and it's this approach that makes the film truly unique. Rather than picking one account or even trying to piece together the truth from multiple sources, I, Tonya instead acknowledges these contradictions and frequently calls them out. There are lots of split screen shots of Harding and Gillooly simultaneously saying the opposite thing, and the film isn't reluctant to show both sides–and they're both equally cringeworthy and heartbreaking in most cases.

One expects going into this movie that you'll get a story of either the white trash skater who planned an attack on her competitor, or (a revision on the popular press's version at the time) that she was an innocent in the whole affair. Instead, we get both, and we also get something entirely unexpected: an exploration of the effects of abuse on both a personal and mass scale.

The film establishes early on the physical and mental abuse that Harding's mother inflicted on her from a very young age, immediately making us feel for the young girl as her mother brutally beats her with a hairbrush after she urinates in her costume on the ice. The innocent romance with Jeff and the hilariously brace-faced Tonya almost immediately turns violently sour as well as he establishes a pattern of physical abuse. It's a shocking moment the first time we see him hit her, because we've been led into the film seeing the humor in Harding's contrast with her competitors. To the film's credit, it never shies away from these uncomfortable moments, instead giving Tonya a fourth-wall-breaking voice during the abuse. It's Tonya's inability to escape these abusive relationships explicitly because abuse is all she's ever known that brings her victimhood into focus, and paves the way for the much larger scale abuse the film posits Tonya received from the press and society in general. In a world where victims are often shamed or disbelieved, this kind of painfully honest portrayal of abuse and its consequences is more important and relevant than ever.

This is all pulled off thanks to some fantastic performances. Robbie burns with fiery passion as Tonya, bringing equal parts humor and pathos to the character with a very real world touch. Janney will be the frontrunner for the film come Oscar time; there's a depth in her cruelty that makes her somewhat understandable, if not at all likable. Stan does a great job of not making Jeff a cartoonish version of the abusive husband; instead, he's the likable guy to the public who seems to be just a little doofy, but who is a hateful, savage man behind closed doors.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about I, Tonya is its masterful editing, the likes of which are only rivaled by perhaps Dunkirk this year. The film's editor, Tatiana S. Riegel, manages to create excitement and fantastic visual parallels throughout the film and creating perfect transitions from the "interview" segments into the story and the meta-commentary by the characters within. Combined with innovative and dynamic cinematography that manages to create an intense intimacy with the characters through constant movement and handheld closeups, the film is a likely overlooked technical marvel as well as incredibly entertaining and engaging. It's a testament to Gillespie and co., too, that the ice skating scenes themselves are full of tension and grace, so when Harding lands that first triple axel you might be tempted to fist pump or stand up and cheer in the theater.

I always expected to enjoy I, Tonya. From the first trailer, it looked hilarious and stylish, and more in line with the feel of Logan Lucky than with fellow 2017 biopic Darkest Hour. What I didn't expect was for it to feel closer to a film like 2016's Amanda Knox in its exploration of what "truth" actually means, and I certainly didn't expect for it to move me emotionally as it did. Perhaps more than any other film this year, I, Tonya presents a striking range, from cool as hell sequences cut to classic rock to heartbreakingly real portrayals of abuse; from the hilarity of 29-year old Robbie playing an orthodontically challenged teenager to the thought-provoking consideration of conflicting testimony and how we treat victims. I, Tonya manages to be funny and stylish without ever taking away from the harsh realities of the story, and for that it's one of my favorite movies of the year.

I, Tonya is directed by Craig Gillespie and stars Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, and Paul Walter Hauser. It is in theaters now.
Share This

comments powered by Disqus

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts
© GeekRex All rights reserved