I, Tonya : Reviewed
By Claire Pak
“You’re all my attackers too.”
The story of I, Tonya is based on the real figure skater Tonya Harding, the first American figure skater to land the triple axel in competition and the second to ever land it period. That feat alone would’ve probably put her in the history books, except that’s not what happened. Instead, Tonya Harding became involved in one of the biggest figure skating scandals ever, when in 1994 her biggest rival Nancy Kerrigan had her kneecap smashed by an assailant after practice, a crime which she pleads guilty for obstructing the prosecution of the attackers.
There’s something erasing about the film biopic, or about any narratives we write about celebrities for a mainstream audience. We’re enamored with the symbolic, sensational power of celebrities that truth can disappear under flashing lights and loud magazine headlines.
I say this because I, Tonya, for all of its fast-paced irreverence and winks to the audience, is deeply concerned with the nature of truth as told through the media. It’s almost at war with itself as a medium of fiction. On one hand, the film frames Tonya’s life story (including that scandal) through an often contradictory, sometimes darkly humorous set of interviews, with rapid editing from scene to scene often undercutting a statement made by one character or another. The film practically begins with a joke at its own framing device, how these interviews are “totally true.” On the other hand, the film is about abuse, about the violence done to Tonya by her mother and by her boyfriend/ex-husband and by a society that dislikes what she represents. It’s a film about returning to abuse, again and again, because maybe it’ll get better, or because it’s almost impossible to imagine life without it, or because the abuser comes back. The film plays out Tonya’s story completely seriously while simultaneously questioning the narrative device of the film as telling the truth. The end result makes the tone swing wildly between dark comedy and heavy drama. Montages of beatings are played with a bombastic soundtrack and a sensationalized tone, even as subsequent moments are punctuated with heavy silence as the violence of it all sinks in.
I, Tonya got nominated for Best Editing in the Oscars (the main editor for the film is Tatiana Riegal, who's been working in the industry for more than 30 years and is the only woman nominated for the category), and it’s not hard to see why. The editing contributes so much to the energetic momentum of the film, and the timing of the cuts, such as a cut from a statement from an interview to the scene they are describing, is what makes most of the comedy work. The cuts during the skating scenes, too, manage to jump between Margot Robbie and her skater double relatively smoothly, even if the compositing of Margot Robbie’s face onto the skater’s body is sometimes distracting (though that’s more of a visual effects issue, and doesn’t degrade the quality of the editing at all). The film’s two other Oscar nominees, Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, are also very good: Margot Robbie navigates brash, outspoken Tonya and the stressed-out, vulnerable but determined Tonya who has way too much shit to deal with without the different sides of her coming across like two different characters. Allison Janney, meanwhile, is delightfully detestable. Which is a strange thing to say, considering the story, but she plays Tonya’s mother with just enough good intentions to seem like (horrifyingly) real person, even as she remains stone-faced and badmouths her daughter even at her greatest triumphs. She also manages to turn some of terrible, terrible things she says funny through her delivery alone, especially her swearing.
Which brings us back to I, Tonya’s choice in subject. The tension present in the film between its serious treatment of abuse and the comedic choices made through the film makes a certain amount of thematic sense, and if nothing else it’s good at making things uncomfortable. Because Margot Robbie’s Tonya is speaking to her interviewer, to the media that still follows her around and asks for her story, about what happened in 1994. She’s speaking to the film, and she’s speaking to those watching the film, consuming her struggles and hardships, wins and losses as sensational entertainment. “You’re all my attackers too.”