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‘I, Tonya,’ Like Its Subject, Is All a Bit Much

The Tonya Harding biopic is a poignant sports chronicle, a domestic abuse story, and a riotous account of a dumb crime gone wrong. The best stuff, though, is the pure theater of the skating.

Tonya Harding Neon/Ringer illustration

Do you remember Tonya Harding as the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel in competitive ice skating history, or do you remember her for the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan? It’s likely the latter, which is not your fault: I mean, who could forget? I, Tonya, the new movie about Harding’s life and career, knows what you think of Harding, and though sympathetic to her side of the story, it isn’t entirely here to dispute the less savory nooks of her public image.

Instead, it revels in them. I, Tonya spans from Harding’s first time working with a professional coach as a 4-year-old up through that infamous, career-ending assault on her friend and rival Kerrigan, in which a man hired by Harding’s ex-husband and her bodyguard snuck into a Detroit training facility and beat Kerrigan’s leg with a police baton. Anyone who knows Harding’s story already knows about the big hair and colorful lipstick, the rock ’n’ roll dance style and off-the-ice demeanor that marked her, by American pageantry standards, as too gauche to be a winner. As a judge in the movie tells Harding after stiffing her for good scores at a competition: “You’re just not the image that we want to portray. You’re representing our country, for fuck’s sake. We need to see a wholesome American family and you—you just refuse to play along.” Narrating in the present, Tonya is defiant. “I never apologized for being poor or growing up a redneck,” says Margot Robbie, playing the title role, “which is what I am.” Yes—and then some.

As played by Robbie, who alongside the other actors narrates the entire movie through documentary-style interviews, Tonya Harding is a woman who craves the love she never gets at home and who pursues the thrill of performing for an audience accordingly. She also, relatedly, keeps falling back into the traps of abuse and mistreatment. The Harding of I, Tonya is constantly underestimated—hence the barely contained anger bubbling up in her face as she tells the story from the present through long drags of her cigarette. The movie is a lot of things—too many things—at once: a poignant sports chronicle, a story of domestic abuse, a riotous account of a dumb crime gone wrong. It’s all a bit much but then, Tonya Harding was always a bit much. That’s the fun—and the trouble.

The Tonya of this movie would like us to know that she grew up poor, raised by an emotionally and physically abusive mother, LaVona Golden (played here with devilish humor by Allison Janney), until she eventually married Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a man who not only sustained that abuse, but also ruined her career. Tonya doesn’t die—in real life, she’s very much still alive—and yet the arc mapped out by screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie feels tragic from the outset, or at the very least unfair. Still, young Tonya, who’d go so far as to piss on herself during skating practice to avoid the clutches of her mother, seems capable of muscling her way through it. LaVona, who narrates her interviews with an ornery bird on her shoulder, comes off as rough and unloving, hitting Tonya with hairbrushes in front of the other girls’ parents, knocking Tonya out of her chair when she’s doing her homework, and even, when Tonya is a teenager, throwing a knife at her. It’s all a prelude to the kind of abuse Tonya suffers when she marries Jeff, who slams her into walls and chases her through the house.

Through all of this, Tonya skates. The movie almost makes it seem like landing the triple axel is no big thing for Tonya—we never actually see her practice it, and before she becomes the first American woman to pull it off in competition, we don’t see her mess it up. We don’t know what inspired her to try it in the first place, besides probably her innate sense of daring (which Robbie’s performance definitely has in spades), or how long it took her to get it right, or any of the details that would help us understand Harding as an athlete. That’s initially too bad. We have such a distinct sense of what makes it one of skating’s most difficult jumps that we can’t help but wonder how she pulled it off.

But I, Tonya is less interested in Harding the athlete than it is in Harding the image: the girl who, as a kid, starts wearing fake furs because it is clear that figure skating is an activity that demands you dress the part, who skates to rock music and other atypical fare (she landed that famous triple axel while skating to the music from Tim Burton’s Batman), and wears purple lipstick. The movie emphasizes all of these seemingly external details because, as it quickly reveals, these—not athleticism—are the terms on which Harding was being judged. And they’re the terms on which she eventually judged herself. That’s what the movie is about: judgment. LaVona’s, the judges’, Jeff’s, Tonya’s, and perhaps most of all, ours. When Harding skates in this movie, Gillespie transforms the rink into an exhilarating platform for her ego, where the crowd gets darkened into an anonymous shadowy mass and all you can see, besides Tonya herself, are the stadium lights beaming down onto her like spotlights onto a concert stage. It’s pure theater. The camera travels in circles around her as if to say, yep, she’s the center of everything.

Maybe what makes this the best stuff in the movie is that it expresses everything the movie wants to say in the most performative terms possible. It gives us a sense of who Harding is when she skates, which is who, we gather, she most likes to be—a performer, basking in the audience’s affection. Rogers, the screenwriter, otherwise has a bad habit of jamming his ideas into characters’ mouths off the ice. “I was loved,” Tonya says of landing that triple axel. “I can’t explain how it felt.” It’s all downhill from there: even more violent abuse from Jeff, a series of competitive errors that make her a has-been, a stint working for a diner that reminds her of how little she’s good for when she’s not on the ice, and so on. Rock bottom.

Harding’s life off the ice, which dominates the movie, is hard to watch, and will undoubtedly inspire some conversation. The domestic violence is brutal, and the rock-fueled, buoyant style and tone of the movie makes it hard to say for certain whether that violence isn’t being played up for occasional laughs. It’s all a little too cavalier either way. You can tell we’re still riding the tailwinds of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, though like too many other filmmakers, Gillespie mistakenly conflates how fun it is to watch Scorsese’s movie with the violence, itself, being entertaining. But while Goodfellas is a fun watch, its violence is deliberately appalling and excessive; Scorsese has ideas about the difference between watching mob violence and carrying it out. I, Tonya’s attitude can feel a little weird on that front. Even the moment that Jeff shows up to Tonya’s house after their divorce with a gun and threatens to kill her and then himself dissipates into goofball bickering a little too quickly.

That’s a shame, because the psychology of abuse is part of what makes Harding’s story so difficult to stomach and easy to empathize with, even if you might think she had more say in Kerrigan’s assault than she’s ever admitted. “The thing about Tonya,” says LaVona in an interview, “was she skated better when she was enraged. If there was no ‘She can’t do it’ type of thing, she wouldn’t do it.” Well, shit. “Nancy gets hit one time,” says Tonya, meanwhile, “and the whole world shits. For me it was an all-the-time occurrence.”

As for that attack on Nancy Kerrigan, we don’t get there until an hour in, and it can’t help but feel a little less interesting than what came before, even as Gillespie and his cast soak up the pulpy potential of it with contagious excitement. They walk us through mistake after mistake—and God, are Jeff and his buddies stupid. It’s Shawn—Jeff’s best friend and Tonya’s bodyguard, played by a hilariously greasy Paul Walter Hauser—who hires the men that carry out the “hit.” The plan to scare Kerrigan was supposed to only involve mailing her some threatening letters. Instead, well, you know. Tonya, the story goes, didn’t know about anything but the plan to mail threatening letters. The movie makes enough of a point of characterizing her as a woman full of excuses for her failures, however, that you wonder.

Robbie, for her part, is quite good: sharp, funny, angry, desperate, and when her face is digitally planted onto someone else’s body for the skating scenes, ebullient. The Australian actress is also, somehow, too sharp-cheeked and glamorous to be playing American white trash. But that’s Hollywood. Even with braces and bad hair, Robbie has the look of someone who’d be at home in pageantry, which is one of the central ironies of making Harding’s story into a movie, really. What big name could play her? It can’t help but come off, a little, as dressing down—which is all the more rich in the case of Tonya Harding, a woman we didn’t think was good enough until she learned to dress up.