If Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street didn’t take a split-second of it’s 182 minute running time to consider or sympathise with the many victims involved, at least it credulously tells Jordan Belfort’s story with plenty of macho style. The constant breaking the fourth wall, the winking badinage with the camera, the admiring emphasis on the main’s characters immoral bad-assery, the sentimental soundtrack of hit songs juxtaposed with the thematically dark action; these things have traditionally been elements of mainstream masculine cinema, but Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya subverts all that long before Barbie got there. ‘There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullsh@t. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the f@ck it wants,’ says Tonya, and she’s been proved right ever since.
Tonya Harding’s story is a well-known one; a gifted skater, as an ingenue, she carried the hopes and dreams of a nation, only to dramatically fall from grace when it was suggested that she’d deliberately sabotaged one of her rivals as part of her own thirst for success. Back in 1994, Harding was big news worldwide, and I, Tonya attempts to give a fairly sympethetic reading of how and why all this happened, starting with her pishy, foul-mouthed, abusive mother (Allison Janney in her element). Harding is protrayed as being surrounded by venal and incompetent men, and domestic violence is something that she’s hoping to escape; she’s been dealt a rough hand by life, and I,Tonya casts her as an unreliable narrator keen to tell her side of a notorious story.
Robbie has a producer credit here, and there’s a few side-swipes that connect firmly to themes later developed in her Barbie movie, specifically the use of Sylvester Stallone as a totem of masculinity; Harding trains in the snow and cheekily confides to the audience the she’s doing it ‘the way Rocky did when he fought the Russian’. Harding is protrayed as willingly and daringly taking on men at their own game, and losing out badly, but we’re invited to admire the strength of her spirit, even if misapplied. There’s also some nice comic back up from the various actors who play the men holding her back; it would be hard to imagine a more motely crew than Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser and Sebastian Stan. Steven Rogers script makes a virtue of deceptiveness, with Harding constantly fudging the accuracy of her own account, but this isn’t a straight bio-pic or just Coen Brothers small-crime whimsy; it’s a cautionary tale, with a vibrant Robbie front and centre.
A film somewhat ahead of its time, and likey to be reassessed as it appears in the rear-view of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, Tonya looks past the specifics of a well-kent story to create a fable about a woman so often tripped up by men that tripping up another woman almost seems like a novelty. I, Tonya isn’t a feminist polemic, but a serious-minded black comedy which makes haunting use of Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger, and features a dazzling ice-dance set to ZZ Top’s hard-rockin’ anthem Sleeping Bag. We see the august judges looking appalled by Harding’s music, but it’s actually an ideal choice to soundtrack a wronged woman kicking back against the hangers-on, manipulators and macho pricks who seek success on the back of her own honest (and potentially dishonest) endevours.