ReelBob: ‘I, Tonya’ ★★★½
By Bob Bloom
“I, Tonya” is a dark, redneck, comical marriage of “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” and “Blades of Glory,” as it chronicles the tale of figure skater Tonya Harding and the infamous incident — the kneecapping of rival skater Nancy Kerrigan — that rocked ice rinks around the world.
And yet, it’s not the story that holds your interest, as much as the method that writer Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie adopt to advance the events.
Their tone is one of wry observation, inviting the viewer to watch and listen to these people in disbelief of the dumbfound stupidity, cruelty and narcissism.
Gillespie and Rogers are doing more than telling Harding’s story; they are making pointed observations about athletic ambition and competition as well as the class snobbery that dominates this niche sport.
The film is told in flashback through interviews with the main subjects involved — Harding, her husband, Jeff Gilooly, her mother, LaVona and Gilooly’s friend, Shawn Eckhardt.
As the tale unfolds through their recollections, we get various perspectives on Harding’s life and career, her relationships with her mother and husband and her confrontations with the figure skating establishment, which looked down on Harding, considering her uncouth and white trash.
What comes across in the story is that no matter who is telling it, Harding comes out on the short end of the stick.
She is physically and verbally abused by her mother and husband, who continually berate her, claiming that the mistreatment fires her anger and makes her skate better.
The film’s tragedy is that Harding did have talent. She was the first American woman skater to complete a triple axel in competition, yet her achievements have been overshadowed by the ill-conceived plan to somehow keep Kerrigan from competing in the 1994 Winter Olympics, thinking Harding could take her spot on the team.
There is the crux of the movie. The idea, according to Harding and Gilooly, was to frighten Kerrigan with death-threat letters so she would withdraw from the competition.
According to Eckhardt, a delusional individual who insisted to everyone that he was some sort of dark secret agent — a part of a worldwide web of spies — the plan from the outset was to incapacitate Kerrigan to keep her from performing.
No matter which version is true — and, honestly, it is not really important — the caper was ill-conceived and botched from the outset. Within days, everyone involved was on the FBI’s radar.
Driving “I, Tonya” are the performances of Margot Robbie as Harding, Allison Janney as LaVona and Sebastian Stan as Gilooly.
Robbie presents Harding as the ultimate victim, but with a burning desire to elevate herself in the world. She sees skating as her ladder, and lets no one stand in her way.
Janney’s portrayal sends shivers down your spine. She is a cold, boorish, foul-mouthed monster who takes crap from no one, including her daughter, coaches or Gilooly.
She is a cynical creature who believes the way to succeed in the world is to pull everyone else down.
Janney’s LaVona is an unforgettable force for which the actress rightly deserves a supporting actress Academy Award nomination.
LaVona sees through Gilooly from the start, pegging him as one of those dumb guys who thinks he is smarter than anyone else — an observation that soon proves true.
And that brings us to Paul Walter Hauser’s Shawn. Gilooly’s pal is a nut job who lives in his parents’ basement, spinning tall tales of espionage and conspiracy theories.
He assures Gilooly that his plan to take care of Kerrigan is foolproof — the “operatives” he hires are so inept that they are easily nabbed.
It’s hard to say if “I, Tonya” is an entertaining experience. It will have you gaping at times as you watch the various characters put their outrageous spins on the well-documented attack on Kerrigan.
The movie is unforgettable, even though you may want to rid your mind of these people as quickly as possible.
I am a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. My reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). I also review Blu-rays and DVDs. I can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Links to my reviews can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.
3½ start out of 4
(R), language, violence, sexual content, nudity