"Harding isn't blameless or even necessarily good. She's simply a woman who had one good thing and wanted the chance to show that she was more than the disposable girl everyone thought she was."
I, Tonya is a curious film. Detailing the life and relationships of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and the crime that made her infamous, the film expertly straddles the line between condemnation and exoneration.
Beginning with her childhood, I, Tonya shows Harding's struggles with domestic abuse, first at the hands of her mother and then later her husband. Her desperation to excel at her chosen sport is neatly aligned with her working class existence: to be the best was to be loved. The film attempts to make the case that Harding's aspirations were less about professional competitiveness than existential affirmation, and at this it largely succeeds. Harding's mother LaVona is portrayed with frightening conviction by Allison Janney, who imbues her with a kind of venom that is upsetting to watch. Several times she slaps her daughter or throws things at her, and in one scene she not-quite-accidentally stabs her with a knife. But it's the verbal abuse that is most stunning in its viciousness. LaVona degrades her daughter with terrifying regularity, picking her apart for minor infractions and setting the groundwork for the abuse that comes later when Harding marries.
Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) is an insignificant kind of abuser. His frustration with is own life manifests in beatings and threats that leave Tonya bruised and him repentant. The film portrays the decline of their relationship as swift and inevitable. While there's been a lot of discussion about whether Harding's domestic abuse was treated too trivially, on this point I can't agree. True, the depictions of abuse are treated as so frequent and commonplace as to be mundane. The camera skips from one incident to another without dwelling on any one injury too long; the result is a sense of ubiquity. But it's not that Harding's abuse was funny or unimportant, they were simply constant and incessant. She didn't dwell on those parts of her story because to her, individually they were simply a minor contribution to the facts of her life.
As the film continues, Gillooly tries to control Harding knowing that her star will continue rising while he is left behind. "After the triple, everything changed" they say in tandem. It was the point in her career when her skills as a skater could no longer be questioned. Redneck or not, white trash or not, poor or not, Tonya Harding was a star. She was the best, and no one could take that away from her, but they could sure as hell try.
"The Incident" takes up the last hour of the film and depicts the machinations of a handful of conspirers too self-involved to have ever gotten away with the crime. They change the plan, botch the execution and leave a trail of clues behind them. By the time Harding realizes what has been done in her name the FBI are already investigating. As history reflects she is later sentenced to three years' probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $160,000 fine and is banned from figure skating for life. Though she shines throughout, it is in this court scene where Margot Robbie truly proves her worth in her depiction of the disgraced Olympian. Near tears, she begs the judge not to prevent her from skating and offers to go to jail instead. Robbie's barely restrained desperation puts a fine point on what I believe is the thesis of the film: Harding isn't blameless or even necessarily good. She's simply a woman who had one good thing and wanted the chance to show that she was more than the disposable girl everyone thought she was. Her biggest crime was in not being savvy enough to save herself when she saw her career being ruined by those around her.
Nancy Kerrigan is not central to this film in any way and that makes sense. The film is not about her. I, Tonya exists to contextualize the tragedy of Tonya Harding's life and deconstruct her hard exterior. Harding doesn't quite come across as a sympathetic character; she isn't remorseful the way we expect those seeking public redemption to be. But in a way this too makes sense. She spent her whole life learning and relearning that only her own skill and talent could take her through. The people who were meant to love her knew only violence. One does not survive that through habitual prostration or apology.
An effective experiment, I, Tonya is overall a well-acted film with brilliant performances by Janney and Robbie especially, but it is not quite the meritorious frontrunner as is being touted. It is a well-made film that continues in the tradition of examining our larger cultural obsessions, but provides little more in the way of grander cultural critique.