I, Tonya tells us what it’s going for from the very beginning: text flashes on the screen telling the audience that the film is based on contrasting testimony given by Tonya Harding, her ex-husband, and others. The movie proceeds to use documentary-style interviews and a breakdown of the fourth wall as characters challenge the narratives the other characters are presenting.
Presenting multiple perspectives is a conceit many films have used to great effect, such as Rashomon, The Handmaiden, and just about every Tarantino flick. These films all have something crucial in common: the multiple perspectives coalesce, and ultimately form one impression of the truth. Reservoir Dogs might show us the differences in how each member of the heist saw the events unfold, but it never denies that one thing actually happened.
I, Tonya does. The film begins in Harding’s early childhood, charts her rise through the ranks of professional figure skating, and culminates in what it vaguely dubs ‘the incident,’ in which Harding and her ex-husband may or may not have ordered a hitman to break rival Nancy Kerrigan’s knees. By the time the film has finished twisting and turning between the characters’ contrasting viewpoints, Harding tells the audience her conclusion: “There’s no such thing as truth.”
It’s an alarming attitude for the film to take. Just because there are multiple perspectives does not mean there is no truth, and what could have been a fascinating exploration of what the truth is becomes a complete denial of its existence altogether.
What this denial creates is a narrative that absolves all parties involved. If there is no truth, then we can’t really condemn Harding (Margot Robbie) or her ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) for what happened to Kerrigan. The lack of accountability goes beyond the Kerrigan incident, too. When the film settles on factual nihilism, it also absolves Jeff and Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney) from whatever abuse they inflicted on Harding. How do we know it really happened?
It’s puzzling how the film is not being roundly criticized for this, even as a similar charge is being levied against fellow best picture nominee Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The common criticism aimed at Three Billboards is that it completely redeems a racist cop. I didn’t see that character’s arc as one of redemption, but I felt such an arc much more clearly in I, Tonya. By the end of the movie, the audience is put in a position to be entirely on Harding’s side.
It’s a shame, because Harding might deserve a movie that lends her a bit more sympathy. That’s not what this movie does. I don’t necessarily need the Tonya Harding biopic to answer the question of whether she was in on the Kerrigan hit. But it can’t flippantly treat that question as if it doesn’t matter. The Kerrigan scene plays as comedy. That might work in Reservoir Dogs, but Kerrigan really did have her knee shattered.
The suggestion I, Tonya makes is that we can lessen Harding’s culpability by showcasing the hardships she went through: an abusive mother, an abusive husband, and rejection by the figure skating elite. These pieces may make for a more well-rounded vision of Harding, but create an uncomfortable justification of the Kerrigan incident. I think director Craig Gillespie might argue this point; why, after all, can’t we get a well-rounded picture of Harding without it being an attempt to change our view of the Kerrigan attack? To propose that this is possible is, to me, entirely disingenuous. The story of Tonya Harding is, and always will be, the story of the Kerrigan attack. We wouldn’t be telling it otherwise.
The film’s saving grace is Margot Robbie’s Oscar-nominated performance, which is truly incredible. What could have been a one-dimensional, condescending portrayal of an aggressive, self-described ‘white trash’ outsider was instead one of the most complex performances I’ve seen all year. Robbie balances an unbridled cockiness and an intense vulnerability with great precision. Like the final shot in Call Me By Your Name, we get an extended take near the end of I, Tonya focused on Robbie’s face, and the mix of emotions she expresses are astounding. I hope she wins the Oscar.
Notably, the film that launched Robbie to fame, The Wolf of Wall Street, is also relevant again. The Wolf of Wall Street followed the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a hard-partying, immoral Wall Street executive who defrauded his investors out of $200 million dollars. Belfort has a new bestselling book out, in which he outlines how to persuade and influence your way to the top. His site prominently references the film, and proclaims that “anyone can bounce back from devastating setbacks.” Including millionaire investors, apparently.
The stories we tell matter. The Wolf of Wall Street was troublesome in a similar way to I, Tonya: complete moral abdication in telling the story of complicated, potentially immoral subjects. Belfort stole millions, but following the platform The Wolf of Wall Street gave him, he’s able to peddle motivational bunk. I, Tonya is not just a narrative corrective; it’s a springboard back into the spotlight. So when the Tonya Harding or Jeff Gillooly autobiography inevitably lands on bookshelves, please don’t forget that a complicated story does not mean a lack of truth. Just ask Nancy Kerrigan.