The Mob’s Reel: Margot Robbie Is Terrific in ‘I, Tonya’
The Mob’s Reel is a film column that features reviews and essays covering everything from the latest blockbusters to standout indies.
Directed by Craig Gillespie from a script by Steven Rogers, I, Tonya is a self-aware, blackly comic take on the life of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), infamous for her alleged involvement in the 1994 attack on fellow Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan. Hilarious and often poignant, I, Tonya has fun in the muddied waters of “true story” ambiguity, acknowledging the many contradictions between every major player’s version of events.
There’s some cutting commentary regarding the utter lack of empathy inherent in sensationalist media, with the film adding oft-ignored nuance and context to Harding’s story by foregrounding the mistreatment and unfairness she endured throughout her life. From the abuse Harding suffered at the hands of her mother and ex-husband to her class-based dismissal by the haughty U.S. skating community, Gillespie and Rogers never lose sight of the fact that Harding is a deeply flawed and complicated person rather than a punchline.
In one of the best lead performances of the year, Robbie is fiery and committed, embodying not only Harding’s relentless drive and hilariously crass attitude, but also her deep-rooted pain. Allison Janney, who plays Harding’s mother, is so perfectly venomous and horrifying that I’d bet good money on seeing her walk away with some gold at the Oscars next month. Sebastian Stan does great work as Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband and alleged co-conspirator, with Paul Walter Hauser stealing almost every scene he’s in as Jeff’s impossibly ridiculous and delusional friend Shawn.
When the film spends time on the rink, there’s some noticeable CG used to stitch some of the skating together, which tends to dull the impact; still, there’s enough energy and style in Harding’s rock-soundtracked skating sequences to smooth over the distracting effects, and when you’ve got a performance as commanding as Robbie’s at the center of it all, it’s pretty easy to forgive some hiccups.
The movie has a strong visual identity thanks to Nicolas Karakatsanis’s fluid cinematography and costume designer Jennifer Johnson’s recreation of a believable 90s aesthetic that never veers too far toward tacky nostalgia porn. Editor Tatiana S. Riegel helps the film skip along briskly without its tonal shifts feeling jarring or out of place, even when breaking the fourth wall and playing with differing accounts of the film’s events.
I, Tonya is just as sharp-toothed and scrappy as its subject, signaling an exciting future for Margot Robbie, whom I hope continues to make choices as exciting and vital as this one.