“I was loved for a minute, then I was hated, then I was just a punchline,” Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) tells the camera in I, Tonya, summing up the life cycle of a scandalous public figure with pithy efficiency. She was once a competitive ice skater with serious promise, becoming the first American woman to land the notoriously hard triple axel jump in competition. She was a misfit in a cloistered world, performing routines to songs like ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag” and the Jurassic Park theme rather than placid classical music. And, of course, she was at the center of the sport’s most shocking incident of all time: the 1994 attack on her teammate Nancy Kerrigan orchestrated in part by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly.
Craig Gillespie’s (The Finest Hours, Lars and the Real Girl) biopic makes the assault on Kerrigan its centerpiece, but it also examines Harding as a larger symbol of how classist, sexist, and image-obsessed celebrity culture can be. As played by Robbie, Harding is brash and foul-mouthed, but she’s also a victim of her own fame and of a judgmental audience. Robbie’s performance is undoubtedly sympathetic to Harding as she experiences widespread shaming in the aftermath of the Kerrigan attack. But I, Tonya too often feels glib and glancing, holding the public responsible for many of the easy assumptions and narrative shortcuts the film itself indulges in while telling Harding’s story.
The movie (written by Steven Rogers) is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” it announces in its opening title card. Harding and Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) narrate straight to camera, reminiscing on their violent marriage and Harding’s rise and fall in the early 1990s, as if they’re in a particularly grim episode of The Office. Harding is played as hard-bitten and unrepentant, while Gillooly is soft-spoken and full of denials, seemingly remorseful about what happened to his ex-wife’s career but denying her claims that he hit her throughout their relationship.
Gillespie treats Gillooly’s alleged spousal abuse with chilling mundanity; Gillooly will be sweet or goofy with Harding in one moment, and furious or abusive in the next. At the same time, the film tries to poke fun at the he-said, she-said nature of the relationship. “This is bullshit, I never did this,” Harding says to the camera as she chases her husband around the house with a shotgun. It’s hard to know when to laugh and when to gasp in horror, and Gillespie himself only sometimes seems to know.
Another influence on her rise to fame as a skater is Harding’s equally tempestuous relationship with her mother LaVona (Allison Janney, whose talking-head sequences see her clad in a fur coat with a pet bird on her shoulder). This character is even more representative of the tightrope I, Tonya is trying to walk: LaVona is strategically deployed for both her acidic laugh-lines (usually insults directed at her daughter) and the childhood beatings she allegedly visited on Harding. The movie draws a straight line from this rough upbringing to Harding’s troubled marriage and her struggles with the prim authority figures of skating. But Gillespie’s thesis doesn’t extend too far beyond making that basic connection.
Despite her terrifying mother and her mercurial husband, Harding becomes a skating sensation thanks to her athleticism and her mastery of the nigh-impossible triple axel. Gillespie excels in these competition sequences, making every physical feat on the ice a thrilling rush for Harding. In the first half of the film, which charts her meteoric rise, it truly feels like skating is a joyous escape from an otherwise frightening life. But then the story’s focus shifts to the attack on Kerrigan, and that compelling narrative quickly gets lost.
The second half of I, Tonya mostly backgrounds Harding, who says she was unaware of her ex-husband’s machinations, and focuses on Gillooly and his thick-headed pal Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), the doofy masterminds who served prison time for the attack. As they plot to physically incapacitate Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) so she won’t rival Harding at the 1994 Olympics, the movie turns into a facsimile of a Coen brothers caper, following a scheme orchestrated by myopic dunces. The attempt to knock Kerrigan out of competition only served to bring about a world of misery for Harding, who was held responsible for the crime in the public eye. (She later pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge, admitting only to failing to come forward with information about the attack after it was carried out.)
“It was like being abused all over again, only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers, too,” Harding tells the camera as the tale begins to wind toward its tragic end, yet it’s a note that rings hollow. Gillespie clearly sympathizes with his protagonist. But the film still holds her at arm’s length, offering her up as the product of a horrific upbringing and a sad marriage without working to understand her in any meaningful way. Harding’s hardscrabble childhood in Oregon is largely a pantomime, as is Gillooly and Eckardt’s eventual scheme to take down her rival. Even in its darkest moments, I, Tonya seems to be stifling a laugh it hasn’t quite earned.