Margot Robbie Dazzles As Pop Culture Villain In 'I, Tonya'
By Andrea Thompson
“I, Tonya” is a heartfelt tribute to a woman who fought and ultimately failed to overcome the obstacles her class and gender imposed on her. In a more fair world, her drive, force of will, and most of all, her sheer talent would've been enough. But when we are born in certain circumstances, obstacles tend to create more obstacles on top of those we inevitably build for ourselves. Her fall from grace in 1994 after she was accused of kneecapping fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan transformed her into a cultural punchline, fodder for a new kind of media frenzy that was birthed with the 24-hour news cycle.
It's impressive, even if “I, Tonya” can't commit to its statement about everyone living their own truth. It firmly accepts Tonya's version of events, probably because people have trouble giving her the benefit of the doubt even now. If “I, Tonya” had indicated that its subject was as guilty as most people still think she is, it's pretty hard to imagine audiences retaining any sympathy whatsoever for her. But then, by the end you can hardly blame the movie for wanting to redeem a woman who's always been cast as the villain, and the thing about “I, Tonya” is that its belief is contagious. It makes you desperately want to believe in her innocence too. It also helps that Margot Robbie does incredible work bringing her to life, even if she doesn't much look like the woman she's playing.
The film begins with Tonya's talent being discovered at age four. As it quickly becomes more apparent, Tonya's mother LaVona (Allison Janney) becomes increasingly vicious, abusing her physically and emotionally. One of the most heartbreaking things about LaVona's behavior towards her daughter is that she genuinely thinks it will toughen Tonya up and develop her talent even further. In other words, she thinks she's doing what's best. When Tonya's father leaves, things only worsen.
Such dysfunction tends to lead to more, and sure enough, Tonya falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, proving he's more than just a brooding face), a man who soon proves to be abusive. But she's as desperate for love as she is to get out of her mother's house and devote herself to skating full-time. She leaves and returns to Jeff multiple times, and the truly ironic thing about Harding returning to him just in time to destroy her future was that she was trying to build one by attempting to present at least the facade of a happy family.
Because while Tonya's talent is undeniable, she is never given a fair chance due to her refusal or inability to conform to the sport community's image of what a champion should be. She skated to rock music, she made her own costumes, and she called out the judges for their sexism and classism. Compare that to the image of the girl the press cast as her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, who was everything the ice skating world expected a winner to look like. She was classically beautiful, her costumes were exquisite, and her status as the adored Ice Princess meant she a prime candidate for the endorsements which are an athlete's bread and butter.
The relationship between the women themselves is where “I, Tonya” ironically falls short. The movie is at its most fascinating when describing it, and not just because it has come to define both Harding and Kerrigan's lives even today. The press cast them as rivals, but the way Tonya describes it, they were actually friends and even roommates on tour. The points where Tonya marvels at the gulf between them are actually the most thought-provoking. The footage of Kerrigan weeping after her injury has become iconic, but Harding reminds us that being hit was a regular part of her life. She's even more baffled at Kerrigan's clear displeasure at winning a silver medal rather than the gold, when even getting a fair shot at any of them seemed forever beyond Tonya's reach.
But the final injustice was that others in the story who were clearly guilty were able to build new lives, while Tonya was given a lifetime ban from skating, thus depriving her of her ability to make a living, forever dubbed the villainous mastermind of it all. Was she guilty? Even today, few seem able to even give her the benefit of the doubt. Compare that to “The Disaster Artist,” which is in essence a story of people completely embracing a male filmmaker who built his entire career around his perceived victimization while also treating people appallingly. At the very least, “I, Tonya” asks us to take a look at ourselves, who we cast as our real-life villains, and why we even feel a need for them in the first place.