US (2017) Dir. Craig Gillespie
Figure skater Tonya Harding will live in infamy for the incident on January 6th 1994 when her main rival Nancy Kerrigan was attacked and left with an injured knee, for which Harding was found complicit. The truth behind it, to this day, is still as clear as mud so we can’t blame this bio-pic for taking the darkly humorous approach that it does.
Based on genuine interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, in which both proffer wildly conflicting recollections on their lives and the Kerrigan incident, writer Steven Rogers didn’t need to look too far for comic capital, given the cast of colourful characters involved. If it wasn’t true this would definitely be a tragi-comedy.
I, Tonya doesn’t proclaim to uncover the truth because nobody can agree on what that is – instead, it presents the facts as told by Harding, Gillooly and others and lets the audience try and figure it out. It’s a torrid litany of physical and mental abuse, toxic relationships, bigotry, delusion, manipulation, deception, and violence and not the fairy tale rags to riches story it should be.
Beginning in 1970’s Portland, Oregon, four-year old Tonya (Maizie Smith) is foisted upon skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) by her ogre of a mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). Over the next few years Tonya (McKenna Grace) blossoms as a skater but her relationship with her mother worsens and her father Al (Jason Davis) leaves her after having enough of LaVona.
LaVona is a truly hideous piece of work, a monstrosity of selfishness, violence, and bile infused abuse; it is remarkable she married once let alone five times. Cold eyes peer out from behind large glasses; a basin bowel haircut frames her stern face and rarely is she without a cigarillo. She looks and behaves like a caricature of a female film baddy but public record shows some accuracy to this representation.
Is it easy to see why Alison Janney was universally rewarded for her portrayal – you couldn’t create a person this unfeeling and lacking in empathy. Nothing is her fault, she only acted out of love for her daughter (which she admitted she never had) and her career, and through Janney she is someone you don’t want to meet in a dark alley yet her caustic tongue provides much of the film’s wit.
You’ll have to suspend disbelief when Tonya’s voice over informs us she is now 15 years-old yet on screen is 27 year-old Margot Robbie, and no amount of 80’s fashion and bad haircuts will persuade us otherwise. Tonya meets and begins a relationship with the older Jeff (Sebastian Stan), even with the weedy teen moustache Stan’s 18 year-old Jeff look 30, but we run with it anyway.
Unfortunately, Jeff proves just as abusive and controlling as LaVona, whilst Jeff suggests Tonya was violent towards him! In one of many fourth wall breaking moments, a gun-toting Tonya declares “I did not do this!” as she opens fire on Jeff. The issue of domestic violence is never fully addressed or treated seriously, making it feel like a plot device that allows this practice to escape censure; yet it make us sympathetic towards Harding, which before this film was probably unlikely given her notoriety.
Jeff and Tonya eventually marry but still fight constantly. But as Tonya rises up the ranks in skating, she is held back by her confrontational attitude, lower class background, and homemade outfits, for which Judges score her down, because she doesn’t represent “wholesome America”. Maybe Harding should have put a hit was on the judges and not her fellow skaters!
Harding’s career crashed to halt after a series of poor performances, until Diane offers Tonya a chance to redeem herself at the 1994 Winter Olympics. When Tonya receives a death threat ahead of a competition which upset her so much she pulled out, Jeff and his friend Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) had the idea to do the same to Kerrigan – except fantasist Shawn goes behind Jeff’s back and arranges something more extreme.
At least this is Jeff’s recollection. Eckardt is now dead so his only testimonies are police interviews and an awkward TV interview in which he blames Jeff. Harding insisted she knew nothing about the attack then later admitted she agreed to the letters only, also exonerating Jeff for the attack, which she later retracted after he threatened her, which Jeff said he didn’t.
Gillespie overloads the film with gloss for the skating sequences, partly performed by Robbie, partly by stand-ins but shot with precision and care to capture the skill required to pull off the moves. He gets gritty when he needs to in the downbeat scenes of the domestic bullying, and the muted colour palette used for the interiors of Tonya’s slum homes beautifully juxtaposes the fleeting glamour of fame and the harshness of reality.
It is unfortunate for Margot Robbie that LaVona was such a strong character otherwise this would have been her star making performance and the one to sweep all the awards. On any other occasion this is the one we would be talking about as Robbie humanises the woman who at one point was one of the most hated in the world and along with the revealing script makes her a sympathetic victim – almost – and that deserves credit.
So, whom do we believe? Only you can answer that, but to clarify, this isn’t about vilifying one person or vindicating the other, everyone looks bad here! Harding refuses to take responsibility for her actions, Jeff tries to paint himself as a saint and LaVona is somewhere between the two but gives less of a damn.
The most important thing I, Tonya achieves is in getting the facts – as confused as they are – across in an entertaining and provocative manner; but be warned, it often feels like you are watching a Christopher Guest mockumentary – it is that ludicrous on a credible level!