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Non-Review Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya is a biopic for the post-truth era. It is also brilliant.

The subject of I, Tonya will be casually familiar to most viewers, the figure skater Tonya Harding who was implicated in an attack on fellow figure skater Kerrigan. The incident was a flashpoint for the nascent twenty-four hour news cycle in the early nineties, although most people remember it as a warm-up for the O.J. Simpson case only shortly afterwards. As such, I, Tonya feels like the perfect window through which to examine the modern era’s obsessive celebrity-focused culture and the desire to turn our heroes into monsters for the audience’s viewing pleasure.

Putting her own spin on it.

I, Tonya is fascinating on that level alone. Its characters repeatedly break the fourth wall in an attempt to steer and control the narrative, but occasionally do so to indict the audience for their complicity. I, Tonya is a film that understands it cannot be about this media maelstrom without being part of this media maelstrom. There’s a canny knowingness to I, Tonya, an understanding that a movie about culture’s slipping grip on the idea of reality cannot be too earnest or too sincere.

I, Tonya repeatedly suggests that its story may stray into the realm of fantasy and fiction, but the movie still packs a real punch.

Get your skates on, mate.

I, Tonya consciously and repeatedly blurs the line between truth and fabrication, often teasing the audience as it does so. The movie’s framed through a series of what appear to be television interviews with the characters themselves, played by the cast. These characters provide running commentary to what unfolds on-screen, often contradicting both one another and themselves. At one point, as the character chases her ex-husband through the shotgun, she pauses to reassure the audience, “This never happened.”

The narrative in I, Tonya is frequently and intentionally disjointed. At one point, late in the movie, a serial and obvious liar is called out on his blatant deception. He claims to be an expert in counter-terrorism, a man who traveled the world and has a unique insight into the criminal mind. The untruths are so blatant that even the interviewer has to call him out. “No you’re not,” she states. “Yes I am,” he responds. “No you’re not,” she counters. “Yes I am,” he insists. The conversation continues in this manner. Truth is as subjective as reality.

Harding and Fast Truths…

I, Tonya seems to accept the absurdity of trying to derive a single unified version of events from the self-serving and distorted accounts of what happened. Every character in I, Tonya is serving their own agenda, selling their own story, constructing their own narratives. Sometimes those competing stories overlap, but those moments are fleeting and few. The characters in I, Tonya believe that they might be able to reclaim their lives by reinventing their own stories, none of them particularly concerned about mismatched details or contradictory accounts.

Although set against the back drop of the late eighties and early nineties, a notion reinforced through a poppy soundtrack and through repeated acknowledgements of the shadow of Ronald Reagan, I, Tonya clearly resonates with the current climate. The film acknowledges as much, almost cheekily nodding towards the way in which the popular psyche seems to have detached itself from any notion of consensus reality. “The haters always say, ‘Tonya, tell the truth’,” Harding admits. “There’s no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth.”

On thin ice.

The narrative in I, Tonya frays and breaks. Characters talk over one another in the framing device, often interrupting particular plot tangents to refocus the narrative on something that paints them in a less oppressive light. “I just want to say one thing,” Tonya repeatedly asserts whenever it seems like the reality of what happened might completely overwhelm her. Absent from the film for about twenty minutes, her mother complains, “My f$!king story disappeared.”

All of this builds towards the climax, when the narrative seems to completely unfurl. Characters who have been talkative and candid suddenly become uncomfortable when the story focuses on “the incident.” Characters try to talk around it, to divert attention away from it. At its climax, the film itself seems to wrestle with the narratives cultivated by its characters. I, Tonya is a non-linear film for most of its runtime, but it becomes almost unstuck in time as it builds to the story that everybody wants to hear, but nobody wants to talk about.

Chilling developments.

It is a fantastically clever way to structure a biography. I, Tonya wraps and coils around its subjects, as if watching them ensnare themselves in lies and half-truths. I, Tonya is a movie that clearly reserves some pity and sympathy for its characters, understanding that these are real and complicated individuals. Harding herself is afforded moments of emotional honesty, even if she refuses to acknowledge her own responsibility. When she tears up reflecting on her triple axel, it feels genuine. “I’m sorry,” she admits. “It’s just nobody really asks about that anymore.”

In its own weird way, I, Tonya plays almost as a companion piece to American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, in its exploration of the early nineties celebrity news cycle and the way in which this constant unfiltered stream of sensationalism and punditry laid the groundwork for a lot of what the modern world became. “The media used to hate us,” reflects a veteran producer of the tabloid series Hard Copy in the film. “Then they became us.” There is some truth in that.

Tied up in lies.

I, Tonya offers a compelling exploration of this fractured sense of reality, of this unfurling of news coverage and real life into narrative and rumour. Repeatedly over the course of the film, Tonya is lectured about what she needs to succeed, and it is rarely talent or honesty. Instead, Tonya is repeatedly told to sell a narrative that people want to believe, to dance to a tune set by the establishment and to dress in the way that they expect.

“We need to see a wholesome American family,” a judge confesses to Tonya in a moment of surprising candour. Tonya is not just representing herself, but she is representing an ideal and a story. “I don’t have a wholesome American family,” Tonya responds, something that the movie has explored in considerable depth. Nevertheless, Tonya constructs that narrative. It does not matter that it is untrue. It does not matter that it is toxic. It does not matter how much it hurts her. It is what is expected of a champion and a winner in contemporary society.

Stan by me.

I, Tonya occasionally acknowledges the none-too-subtle subtext of all this. Her former coach speaks in her defense, arguing that Tonya was more than just a person. She represented an ideal. “Tonya is American,” Diane Rawlinson asserts. I, Tonya touches on the character’s toxic relationship with the American ideal, something reflected in her personal relationships. Justifying her desperation and her hunger, Tonya admits, “I wanted to be loved.” She finds a perfect partner in the public, “America, they want someone to love. But they want someone to hate.”

I, Tonya is a staggeringly confident piece of work, but it would need to be for any of this to work. The is fantastically constructed from the ground up. Veteran romantic comedy writer Steven Rogers offers a delightfully twisty and surreal narrative that very consciously builds on his experiences working a genre that hinges on subjectivity and charisma. I, Tonya is in a pitch black romantic comedy about a toxic relationship between a celebrity and the world around her.

The mother of all problems.

Director Craig Gillespie maintains perfect of the film, even as its characters watch their narratives spiral out of their control. Indeed, I, Tonya works in large part because of Gillespie’s embrace of the uncanny and his sly manipulation of biopic tropes. Elements that would seem ridiculous in a more earnest and sincere biography – such as twenty-seven-year-old Margot Robbie playing the title character at the age of fifteen or the use of computer-generated imagery to impose her face on a skating double – instead enhance the sense of the surreal or the absurd.

I, Tonya also benefits from a superbly constructed cast, from the outside in. Bobby Cannavale energises a small supporting role that has minimal interaction with the actual plot, but which exists to provide a sense of context. Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan offer fantastic support in the movie’s key secondary roles. McKenna Grace builds off an impressive breakthrough performance in Gifted, playing the younger iteration of the eponymous figure skater.

Smiles to go before she sleeps.

However, I, Tonya belongs to Margot Robbie, an actor finally granted a lead role that fully showcases the power and charisma that has been suggested even by her work in less convincing or compelling films like Suicide Squad or Focus and which shone through even through supporting roles in movies like Wolf of Wall Street and even The Big Short. I, Tonya is a movie that lives or dies by its lead performer, and Robbie pulls off a flawless portrait of a woman far more nuanced and conflicted than most of her depictions would allow.

I, Tonya is a fantastic film, one that speaks very much to the present moment while still working fantastically outside of it. It is a clever and subversive biopic, a postmodern exploration of subjective reality in the post-truth era. It is also a fantastically-constructed meditation on celebrity anchored in a powerhouse of a central performance.

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One Response

  1. That last screenscap looks like Harley in a retirement home.

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