June 23, 1993 to January 4, 1994 marked a tattered, banner year for American tabloid-talk violence. Twelve months worth of fodder for supermarket scandal sheets and Geraldo-style TV shows squeezed into 196 days. It began with Lorena Bobbitt cutting off her husband’s penis at their Virginia home and tossing it in a field, and ended with a man baton-whacking figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s leg in a hallway in Detroit’s Cobo Arena. The media sensation and punchlines papered over the underlying issue of domestic violence. Whooshing in not-at-all-quietly behind the headlines, I, Tonya sports some sequins of glinting dark comedy, but soon spins into a sordid saga of working-class talent. Not hothoused, but coldly pushed, scorned and abused.
Starting with camcorder interviews of the main Portland players—mother LaVona (Allison Janney); Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie); ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan); dopily grandiose friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser)—there’s subjective truth-telling. Only the second half deals with the infamous “incident” and its moronic perpetrators. Early on, as young Tonya’s abused by her slim cigarette-puffing mom, she falls in with abusive Jeff (to which Mom sneers, “You fuck dumb; you don’t marry dumb”). Any willingness to snicker catches in the throat. There’s sharp, cutting camerawork, especially in the riveting skate-sequences, but the trademark shot—complex circular tracking, closing in and moving away—mirrors the volatile marriages and this whole tawdry tragedy’s push-and-pull. It implies that Harding’s life merely seems to move on, only to whirl back around in the same vicious cycles.
The phantom lurking in the wings of women’s skating competions is class—a gaudy princess-ness. It’s no surprise this rabbit-shooting, truck-driving gal, raised by an icicle-like mother, gets a hefty ice chip on her shoulder. She’s a star athlete driven by “fuck-’em” spite, not competitiveness or dreams of glory. Tonya, tethered to eight-hours-a-day training only to, off the ice, slide from one oppressor to another, is understandably more ‘anti’ than ‘hero’ here—her refrain is “That wasn’t my fault.” I, Tonya is brash and stirring, all while reflecting sympathetically on this woman’s blinkered, bruised life.
Directed by Craig Gillespie