When we call a work of art “challenging,” that’s often a shorthand for something dense, exhausting, or otherwise difficult to watch. Know this: when you see I, Tonya described as a challenging film, none of those connotations apply. It challenges you in the way that someone in a bar challenges you, or a stranger on the Internet, or how a drunk and righteously angry friend might challenge you. I, Tonya says some uncomfortable things, and then it quite literally looks you in the eye and dares you to look away. It’s not always nice, and it’s not all that pleasant, but it’s entertaining as hell. More importantly, it’s not wrong. I, Tonya would probably get right up in your face, if it could, and it would be loud about it, and then it would lean in and whisper, “and fuck you, too.” For that, you would owe it your thanks.
I, Tonya is often as blunt an instrument as, say, a collapsible metal baton, so let’s be similarly direct: this is an ostentatiously messy film, and nobody involved should’ve changed a damned minute of it. In its opening moments, the film promises something truthful and fractured, subjective and honest, contradictory and cohesive. Unlike faithless friends and terrible parents, it keeps its word.
Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) just wants to skate. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney, exceptional) shoves that dream into the realm of un-dreamlike reality, strong-arming coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) into training her very young daughter (a “soft four,” as LaVona puts it). That tiny kid grows into a determined and already troubled pre-teen (Mckenna Grace of Gifted), and then into a young woman who moves in with boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and breaks barriers at the rink while she gets the crap beaten out of her at home. And then there’s The Incident, an affair about which the accounts differ, but which is inextricably linked to Gillooly and his delusional friend Shawn (the excellent Paul Walter Hauser). The rest is sports and tabloid history.
It’s a history presented as alive and vital in the hands of director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers, who play fast and loose with style and the conflicting stories of its characters, but they stay locked in on a few truths, namely that the truth itself is rarely neat and tidy. The two, along with editor Tatiana S. Riegel, interlace interviews with Tonya, LaVona, Jeff, Shawn, and others through the narrative to highlight that messiness. It’s a technique that grows on you, particularly given how good this ensemble is at playing straight to the camera. The only off-note is a series of interviews with a Hard Copy producer played by Bobby Cannavale; with one notable and hard-hitting exception, they play more as a cameo vehicle than a vital addition to the narrative. That kind of misstep is so rare that they’re all the more obvious with each appearance.
Janney, Stan, and Hauser are all excellent in these sequences, and outside of them. Janney in particular gives a remarkable performance, casting LaVona as a deeply damaging and complicated woman, all while hitting punchline after punchline. Outside of the film’s titular figure, she’s the obvious highlight, but the bench is deep. Stan’s Gillooly is loathsome and pitiful all at once, playing love, pride, envy, remorse, and shame beautifully without ever letting you forget what a monster he is to his wife. Hauser positively disappears behind Shawn’s unfocused eyes, in one of those rare performances so good that it’ll likely go totally unheralded — a real downside of knocking it out of the park so hard that people forget there’s an actor at work. Nicholson, the young Grace, and Caitlin Carver (as the only briefly seen Nancy Kerrigan) are all terrific, cutting striking enough figures that the film’s devil-may-care storytelling and stylistic choices don’t envelop them, and even the smallest characters avoid getting lost in the shuffle (looking at you, Ricky Russert, executor of the year’s best pratfall).
Still, let’s be direct once more: this is Margot Robbie’s film, and not just because it’s also Tonya Harding’s. Robbie has been great in many films, including some pretty bad ones (what’s up, Suicide Squad), but she’s outstanding here. It’s her funny, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking direct-address sequences that prompt the use of “challenging” to describe I, Tonya. She walks a tightrope, never overplaying her hand or cheapening her subject, crafting a portrait of an abuse survivor who’s also an asshole, someone who was treated unfairly but also screwed up a lot, who’s often off-putting but who also didn’t deserve anything close to what she eventually got. In short, it’s a performance that’s neck deep in intelligence and empathy, sometimes infuriating, surprisingly funny, and deeply, uncomfortably heartbreaking. Just watch her put on her game face and claim that it isn’t.
Here’s the truth, and feel free to contradict it: Gillespie, Rogers, and the indelible Robbie have rendered something unapologetic, complicated, and engaging, which makes it a portrait drawn in the spirit of its subject. In this respect, I, Tonya is right on time. It demands understanding, even and perhaps especially when you might be reluctant to give it. It’s as though there’s a toll to pay before you cross this particular bridge. On the other side waits a wildly entertaining film, standing right alongside the knowledge that our culture chews women up and spits them out. We ask them to look, talk, and act a certain way — maiden, mother, crone; jezebels and wives; sinners and saints — and blame them for failing to meet the meaningless prerequisites we’ve created. That ‘we’ is what I, Tonya asks for in payment: the inclusion of ourselves in this circus.
That game face sequence, rolling in near the film’s gut-punch of a conclusion, makes one thing perfectly clear. There will never be enough stories about complicated, messy women, because we’ve had so few, and because they’d have to make films exclusively like this one for a long, long time to approach the tally of films about messy, complicated men. So here’s Tonya, the film says. Enjoy, and fuck you, too.