I, Tonya ★★★★

Hyperkinetic and overdriven in the same manner as Adam McKay's The Big Short, an approach to recent history -- the ridiculous 1994 spat between figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding that took the nation and the appallingly sexist media by storm during the Winter Olympics -- that some will find unbearable, but that seems well-engineered to me to capture the frenetic media of these times, which of course has its roots in early '90s basic cable and the media circuses that would peak later in the same year with the O.J. trial. Director Craig Gillespie walks a tightrope here in fashioning the lives of real people, people who were victims of and/or engaged in some terribly abusive behavior, into something genuinely gripping and even fun; he constantly runs the risk of belittling those he's trying to capture*, and there's no doubt that to some viewers it will come off that way, or that the volleying between serious commentary about how violent narcissism replicates itself and manifests in ever more ugly ways (and about class and about the public thirst for lurid garbage, which in some ways the movie itself is) and often deftly ironic humor is as muddled and confused as Three Billboards. The truth is, that line exists and there's no possible way of knowing if this film will cross it for you -- I've not been a direct victim of abuse but I'm intimately familiar with it and for me, the way that the hitting and mirror-breaking and sudden shouting matches and fights bleed right into and right back out of wall-to-wall music and incessant signals of relative normalcy rings truer than the tension-building lengthy-aftermath drama-heavy manner in which such things are so often depicted in movies. It's incongruous and ugly, and its brutality is underlined rather than trivialized as a result... but again, that's just how it feels to me, and I think Gillespie was aware he was taking a big gamble constructing this as such. (Tatiana Riegel's film editing is astounding -- she came up working for Sally Menken -- and should have merited an Oscar nomination at the very least.) This extends to the film's reconstruction of well-known events that everyone alive with a TV set in 1994 undoubtedly remembers: Kerrigan's "why?" and Harding's foot up on the judges' table, etc.; and here too, it seems to me that the film carries a recognition of how such things can be made laughable and silly when stripped of context, rather than depicting them in a reductive manner itself. (This aspect of the production, and its keen awareness of how normalized the dismissal and contempt toward women was in '90s culture, makes me want Gillespie to make a Monica Lewinsky movie. My biggest beef, incidentally, is that the film ends up sort of sidelining Kerrigan as a sort of MacGuffin, as though she too didn't fall victim to the machine even after she came back from the attack; I recall a family member tsk-tsking her comments at Walt Disney World, as though whispered comments to a guy in a Mickey suit were some extremely serious matter of statesmanship.)

All this is to say, I really loved this -- it's extremely delectable even when it feels like maybe it shouldn't be, and that's with a lot of it hitting a few painful close-to-home notes. Allison Janney's depiction of a cold, embittered, self-absorbed parent is downright frightening in its vividness; it could seem like cartoon melodrama to a person who's never known someone like this, which is again how you know these people are committed to telling this story with the right spirit. The performances in general are monumentally good, complex, believable, even those (like Paul Walter Hauser as the conspiracy-minded mouth-breather Shawn) who could've been rendered as cutesy cardboard. The agility of the camera, especially during the skating scenes -- the routines largely performed by Margot Robbie herself in the title role -- is breathtaking, giving the film a sense of motion and energy and liveliness that only underscores (far more beautifully than Million Dollar Baby) how Harding's chosen sport is the only opportunity she has to escape into herself.

* For context, I think this is something that bugs more than it does many viewers; I don't know why exactly. It's specifically why I detested Linklater's Bernie and am suspicious of things like Errol Morris' Tabloid.

Nathan liked this review