Film Review: ‘I, Tonya’

Craig Gillespie returns to his inherently bizarre cinematic interests with his latest feature, I, Tonya.

Craig Gillespie is somewhat of an enigma of a director. His filmography seems to be constantly oscillating between one genre and another, never resting on the laurels of the previous film’s formal aesthetics, narrative propulsions, or character developments. One year it might be the strange, charming, and humanistic Lars and the Real Girl (2007) and another, the Disney-produced, heartwarming, yet formulaic Million Dollar Arm (2014). It’s a unique trajectory, one that signals this director’s consistently meandering cinematic proclivities.

Take 2016’s The Finest Hour for example. It demonstrates that Gillespie took the time to jump into the deep end of Hollywood cookie-cutter films, using age-old techniques that are more akin to a Bruckheimer film than anything this Australian-born director would find interesting. And yet, it points to Gillespie’s astute directorial abilities, for few other few directors are capable of vacillating between a truly unique film like Lars and the Real Girl (which sees the hunky Ryan Gosling fall in love with a blow-up sex toy) and a dull, historical rescue-drama like The Finest Hour. The difference in quality between the two is noticeable, primarily because it seems that Gillespie was not as invested in directing the latter picture. Instead, it seems that the Australian-born director feels most at home exploring the charm behind the unsavory and bizarre, a quality that thankfully returns in full force in his latest feature, I, Tonya.

I, Tonya tells the story of American sport phenomenon Tonya Harding (in a career-defining performance from Margot Robbie), as leading up to the attack on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. In case you were living under a rock (or maybe you were just born after the ‘90s), there was a scandalous uproar after it was discovered that Tonya Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and his gaggle of moronic accomplices decided that the best way to ensure Harding qualify for a spot on the 1994 Winter Olympic team was to break Kerrigan’s leg. It seemed like something straight out of a Mob flick, and yet it was happening right before America’s eyes in the seemingly tame world of figure skating.

It didn’t take long for authorities and figure skating officials to discover that Gillooly and his friends were responsible for the attack. And by simple act of association, Harding was lumped in with their idiocy as well, having plead guilty to conspiracy charges regarding the accident. And as one could imagine, the backlash was fierce. The media frenzy that erupted afterwards was one that was seldom seen again in the figure skating world. It became a defining moment of ‘90s cultural events, rivaling the coverage of the entire Winter Olympics that year. Harding would be banned from figure skating for life, leaving her with seldom any other opportunities to earn a living. Gillooly and his friends was sentenced to years in prison and many changed their names after their release.

While many directors would have unpacked this incredulous story in an overly dramatic fashion, Gillespie brings a unique sensibility that ensures that I, Tonya remain a refreshing biographical film. Beyond the fact that team Harding failed to achieve their goal (Harding placed eighth while Kerrigan won the silver medal), the manner in which this entire conspiracy occurred is exactly what seemed to be a natural fit for Gillespie, who realizes the innate humor in it all. Gillespie showcase a true understanding of the intricate difficulties in detailing the narrative surrounding such a contentious sociocultural individual. Using faux-interviews and fourth wall conventions, I, Tonya does what few films are capable of doing—making even the most sordid of tragedies seem inexplicably funny. Whether it is the bumbling, narcissistic stupidity of Shawn Eckhart (played with especial low-brow intelligence by Paul Walter Hauser) or the sharp coldness of her mother LaVonda Golden (in a spellbinding performance from Allison Janney), I, Tonya manages to make even the most uncomfortable of events seem worth a humorous snort or two.

In its drive to reveal the underlying sadness of Tonya Harding’s story, Gillespie manages to make even the most troubling aspects of Harding’s life resonate with audience members. It’s a difficult undertaking, one that Craig Gillespie does with seemingly easy precision. And while Gillespie had explored the intricate delicacy between quirky dark comedy and palpable humanism in Lars and the Real Girl, the Australian-born director elevates himself to new levels with his most recent outing. From the film’s deeply satisfying characterizations or the consistently humorous lines of dialogue, I, Tonya is an alluring biographical dramedy that demonstrates the work of a focused director, making for a tantalizing cinematic work.

Catch I, Tonya this weekend during its limited release before catching it nationwide come December 8.

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