Biopics have acquired a reputation in recent years for being a little on the stuffy side. Almost solely sold as prestige pictures, and commonly populated by Very Important Historical Figures, it's easy to feel cynical about them. And now along comes a blisteringly caustic look at the life of the notorious figure skater Tonya Harding, who I think it's fair to say everyone wrote off as a miserable sore loser twenty years ago. It is the opposite of stuffy, full of terrible people doing terrible things to each other. It is also very, very entertaining to watch.
"I, Tonya" is structured like a fake documentary, built around interviews with modern day versions of Tonya Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who narrate and interject their thoughts on the scenes of their younger selves playing out in the past. We also hear from Tonya's estranged mother LaVona (Allison Janney), one of her old coaches, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), a bodyguard, Shaun (Paul Walter Hauser), and a producer (Bobby Cannavale) for the old television tabloid "Hard Copy." This allows for a lot of fourth wall breaking humor and meta-commentary. We're told from the beginning that many of the accounts are contradictory, and there are some flat-out lies. At one point, Tonya even pauses in the middle of a fight with Jeff in one of his recollections to protest to the audience that "I never did this!"
Watching Tonya's trainwreck of a life and career play out in this fashion often feels like watching trashy reality television, but the scripting is smart enough to get across some uncomfortable messages and make a strong case for why Harding's awful reputation is worthy of reassessment. This is not about setting the record straight, but about giving a vilified figure a chance to have her say, while introducing a lot of new information that suggests certain events should be viewed in a different light. Wisely, the film doesn't play up any rivalry between Harding and Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), but suggests that "the incident" where Gillooly paid to have Kerrigan attacked, was mostly the result of several stupid people making stupid decisions that spiralled out of their control. Exactly how culpable Harding was in the crime is left for the audience to decide.
Margot Robbie is the main event here, delivering a ferocious performance that paints Tonya Harding as a deeply flawed, monstrous, tragic woman with everything stacked against her. Robbie doesn't look much like Harding, but is excellent at embodying all the resentment, pain, and misdirected fury that set her on her path to ruin. She lashes out at everyone, including the audience in a cutting monologue toward the end of the film. And just as impressive are an unrecognizable Sebastian Stan as the lowlife Jeff Gillooly, and Allison Janney as one of the most chilling, merciless stage mothers to ever grace the silver screen. The script does an admirable job of keeping them both very human though, with their moments of doubt and regret. The film recognizes that if it lets Tonya Harding say her piece, it has to let her worst abusers say theirs too.
The faux-documentary style allows the filmmakers to play around with various forms of media and framing devices to great effect. Shaun the bodyguard, for instance, only appears via degraded, low quality video tapes in his interviews, mirroring his shady nature. Drawing attention to these various filters on the film's reality is very fitting, as so much of Tonya Harding's bad girl image was due to the way that the media in 1994 decided to portray her. Where the production stumbles a bit is with the depictions of the figure skating, which largely uses digital doubles. There's something about the results that never look quite right, possibly because Margot Robbie really is far too lanky and angular to pass for a professional figure skater. Fortunately, the majority of the drama takes place off the ice.
"I, Tonya" makes a great case for biopics still being a genre that can generate some good, watchable movies, especially when they choose the right subjects. I can't imagine a biopic about Nancy Kerrigan being half as eventful or as much fun as this.