Less than a minute after hearing a character recite the mechanics of the triple axel, a particularly complex jump in the sport of figure skating, director Craig Gillespie shows us the move, as performed by the subject of his movie, with slow-motion photography. The slow-motion part, we come to realize, isn't a reiteration of what the character had recited to us. It's to showcase, in painstaking detail, how the movie's subject performed the maneuver. It's just that the mechanics and difficulty of the jump have gotten lost in the context of the story of this particular subject.
Tonya Harding was the first female figure skater to perform the jump successfully two times over in the same competition. That competition was the 1991 Skate America. She would later be embroiled in a conspiracy that led to the breaking of skating rival Nancy Kerrigan's kneecap in January 1994. We know some of that, but I, Tonya bets (and bets correctly) that we likely know more about the controversy than about Harding's achievements. That is because the controversy surrounding the figure skater is one of the most purely American scandals of the last age. It isn't the most infamous one, surely, and in fact, in today's climate, it would likely be considered minor.
The film takes on the attitude of a vociferously obsessed reader of tabloids in its approach to the story, which is, to be frank, probably the only attitude that would result from reading such a story. The tale is utterly bonkers, the core of it resting in a pair of physically and psychologically abusive relationships - first, between Tonya (Margot Robbie) and her mother Lavona (Allison Janney, alternately funny and foul as a woman who must be in control) and, second, between Tonya and her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, pathetic as a man who loses all control). The former, a superbly indifferent and negligent woman, mostly used words to undercut Tonya's preparation for the real world. The latter, a falsely supportive man with a violent streak, used his fists to keep Tonya in line.
And then there is "the incident," as these and other characters refer to the attack in hushed tones, which involves a bodyguard (played by Paul Walter Hauser), a couple of dimwitted goons, a police baton, and Nancy's (Caitlin Carver) left thigh. Word spreads quickly that Jeff may be involved and that Tonya had knowledge from the beginning. Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers are clearly as baffled as anyone why the attack had to occur. Jeff claims that it started as a plot involving written death threats that spiraled out of control. Tonya denies involvement on the basis that she and Nancy were friendly. It becomes a media frenzy.
Amid the frenzy, of course, the truth is lost. The problem is that the parties involved are precluded from giving an unbiased account. That might also be a problem with the movie, if not for the fact that Rogers simply seems to give up trying to understand the motive behind the attack. It happened, and we may never learn that motive. The tone here is darkly absurdist, but it is never flippant: Tonya's story is a tragedy, whatever might have happened beyond a determination to win, and Robbie's performance is a marvel of detail and nuance, the actress's native accent disappearing entirely into Tonya's own. I, Tonya loses some of its potency by going through the repetitive biographical motions of Tonya's story, but it gains what it loses in the broad strokes of this barnstorming tale of labyrinthine proportions.
Margot Robbie (Tonya Harding), Allison Janney (Lavona Harding), Sebastian Stan (Jeff Gillooly), Paul Walter Hauser (Shawn Eckhardt), Julianne Nicholson (Diane Rawlinson), Bobby Cannavale (Martin Maddox), Bojana Novakovic (Dody Teachman), Mckenna Grace (Younger Tonya), Caitlin Carver (Nancy Kerrigan).
Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers.
Rated R (pervasive language, violence, sexual content/nudity).
Released in select cities on December 8, 2017.