The Fine Line Between Sympathy and Misogyny
Directed by Craig Gillespie
I haven’t seen a film in the past year that relishes female misery as much as Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya. Gillespie and screenwriter Steve Rogers may actually be well-intentioned, but their mix of mockumentary, reflexivity, black comedy and straight-up tragedy is spectacularly ill-suited to relate the story of disgraced skating hopeful Tonya Harding. The film accurately relates how her life and dreams were thwarted by violence, sexism and classism, but it does so through a filter of cheap irony and sarcasm, with a willingness to drop Harding into the void as often as possible. It attacks the media and even the audience — but not Gillespie and Rogers — for exploiting Harding; I, Tonya is worse than the trash TV it alludes to through a reporter played by Bobby Cannavale because it purports to show how difficult life is for working-class women but offers little more than a masochistic wallow out of Lars von Trier’s wet dreams and inept use of music.
Introduced to skating as a small child by her mother LaVona (Alison Janney), Tonya spent her youth dreaming of competing in the Olympics while living close to the poverty line. Abused by LaVona, Harding (Margot Robbie) works menial jobs in restaurants while practicing her skills. She meets Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who beats the crap out of her almost as soon as their relationship begins, but stays with him far too long. However, she rises to the point where she competes in the Olympics. The film claims that she and rival Nancy Kerrigan were companions on the road at times and that she knew nothing of Jeff’s plan to injure Kerrigan.
The end credits show real news footage of LaVona Harding and Jeff’s friend/Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn. (This has quickly become the biggest cliché in films based on the lives of actual people.) We learn that I, Tonya matched the exact style of glasses worn by LaVona and that the real Shawn was every bit as obese as actor Paul Walter Hauser. I, Tonya aims for an idea of working-class realism that doesn’t match 2017 middle-class propriety: characters who constantly smoke and swear at least once a minute. The film’s music choices are not selected by the characters, but it’s telling that the hippest one — Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” — plays over the end credits after the narrative has ended. The middle-aged Jeff sports an ugly and obviously fake grey goatee, as well as huge aviator glasses. Does Gillespie think working-class people are incapable of any sense of self-consciousness about their appearance? Even if the real Jeff looks exactly like this now, his appearance translates to this film in a way that reads as mockery.
Gillespie’s use of music alternates between painfully on-the-nose and ironic. When the four-year-old Tonya skates for the first time, “Evil Woman” plays, seemingly referring to LaVona. As she achieves her first real success as an adult athlete, Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” serenades her. But when a montage shows Jeff beating her 30 seconds after they fall in love, Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” continues to play. The music choices stick to arena-rock and top 40 pop, apart from the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” and the aforementioned Sioxusie and the Banshees song. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird used “uncool” music like the Dave Matthews Band in a respectful way; here, I, Tonya seems to be using ’70s AOR to mock the dreams of Harding and suggest they’re lies.
Gillespie does a good job of directing the skating scenes; they are rare moments of physical ecstasy and escape for Harding, when she is actually achieving her goal. He sticks close to reality at times, re-creating his interview segments from Nanette Burstein’s documentary The Price of Gold. However, inserting direct quotes into fiction transforms them: even if Janney is made up and costumed to look remarkably like the real LaVona, placing her in this context leads to a snideness that may not have been present in the documentary. The film is ultimately speculative, clinging to Harding’s claim of her innocence. Certainly, it makes an epic martyr’s tale. I, Tonya has predecessors: Michael Ritchie’s HBO movie The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Gus van Sant’s To Die For, much of the oeuvres of the Coen brothers and Todd Solondz. However, for all its intended desire to attack the sexism that Harding faced, it comes off as a trade-off of Harding’s legacy as a tabloid villain into an equally one-dimensional victim with little agency of her own.