I’m America’s best figure skater. I don’t want friggin’ Eskimo Pies.
I, Tonya shows its hand right from the start; at the beginning of the film, it puts it out there that it’s based on interviews that are “wildly contradictory.” And the film takes that as a set-up as well with scenes sprinkled through the movie showing the characters being interviewed, while the story we all came for plays out in flashback. The screenplay is good here. It’s surprisingly sympathetic to Tonya but it isn’t blind to her myriad flaws; she’s a tragic figure of a kind, but at the same time, she’s profoundly unlikable. That feels like a pretty real take to me. The film is at times hysterically funny and at other times deeply sad. We get glimpses of how this movie might have functioned as a cynical look at America through the lens of Tonya Harding’s story, but glimpses are all we get; this is still, at its core, a personal story, focused very much on Tonya and the people that surround her. The film really rises on a host of brilliant performances. Margot Robbie is twenty-seven, but she starts playing Tonya when she’s fifteen, but the performance is so good that you kind of applaud the movie’s decision to just go for it and not even worry about verisimilitude in terms of keeping Tonya’s actress as young as she should be because it gets Robbie on screen as quickly as possible; she’s really wonderful, actually disappearing into the role of the redneck, crude, but beautifully talented skater. Allison Janney is maybe career best as Tonya’s abusive mother; and, yes, I’m aware of Janney’s career – that’s how damn good she is here. Sebastian Stan is surprisingly excellent as well as Tonya’s loser husband; I’ve never really found him to be that compelling, but he gives a really fine performance here, showing us a man profoundly stupid and yet also surprisingly sad. And I absolutely cannot praise Paul Walter Hauser enough for his incredibly great supporting performance as the thuggish Shawn, the sociopathic, repulsive “bodyguard” who gets the ball rolling on the entire ugly plot to injure Nancy Kerrigan. It’s a broad, hilarious comedic performance that seems pretty exaggerated until you see the real guy and realize that it’s kind of dead on. Gillespie’s direction is good; some of the sequences where the characters break the fourth wall feel a little gimmicky, but that’s really the only complaint I have. And he truly handles the skating sequences brilliantly. It’s easy to admire the gracefulness and beauty of ice skating, but he makes skating feel absolutely exhilarating. The first big sequence, where Tonya skates to ZZ Top’s Sleeping Bag, is a rush of pure energy and exuberance. The film really nails the emotional & tonal shifts it has to go through to tell this story: genuine joy, weary sorrow, dark comedy. I, Tonya turns out to be wildly entertaining with never a dull moment and the details of the story may surprise you even if you think you know it. It’s a real killer. 4 stars.
tl;dr – perfectly acted dark comedy has a surprising depth to its tragic elements; wildly entertaining and enthralling. 4 stars.