I, Tonya makes its star a punchline
It's hard to know where the truth lies in the cinematic punchline that is director Craig Gillespie and actor Margot Robbie's I, Tonya.
A non-conventional biopic that mingles fourth-wall breaking, Fargo-esque shenanigans, Goodfellas-style extreme domestic violence, comedy and unreliable narrators, the truth is as difficult to trace as the film promotes Margot Robbie's Tonya Harding as a victim, not a villain.
As Verbal in The Usual Suspects intoned at the end, "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist". I, Tonya is similar in that you're likely to emerge still not quite believing who is right, what's true about the incident that hobbled Harding's contender Nancy Kerrigan in January 1994.
Beginning relatively quietly and with a series of others' piece-to-cameras explaining their role in the Tonya tale, Gillespie sets about building an image of the ice skater before Robbie's presence is fully revealed.
Sitting in her kitchen, non-descript with limp hair, Robbie portrays Harding as a victim who never wanted anything more than to skate.
Taking viewers through her childhood in 1970, where her mother LaVona (a nothing-short-of-sinister and compelling turn from Alison Janney under a pudding bowl cut and pair of unflattering glasses) verbally and physically abuses Harding daily, the film follows Tonya's rise to adulthood, her abusive relationship with Jeff Gillooly and her desire to do nothing but skate. Janney deserves all the plaudits she's being showered with for her role as the harridan mother.
Robbie is impressive as Harding for the most part — even if the final third feels rudderless as it takes in a crime straight from the annals of the Fargo anthology series in its woeful stupidity.
Gillespie's desire to make the audience complicit (and Harding's on-screen insistence on blaming her viewers) makes for conflicted watching.
But Robbie's game is seriously raised, and the film is never better than when Janney is on-screen and we dwell in the pair's dynamic. Simmering with an horrific tension, and redolent of systemic abuse, these scenes are frank in their approach and as eye-opening an insight into character as could be expected.
However, Gillespie's desire to make the audience complicit (and Harding's on-screen insistence on blaming her viewers) makes for conflicted watching.
That said, there are moments of directorial bravura in I, Tonya.
Gillespie's eye for sweeping shots of the rink contrasts the beauty of skating with the ugliness of the protagonist's home life.
Ultimately, and unfortunately, I, Tonya makes a literal punchline of its subject, and leaves you none the wiser to the reliability of what transpires.
It does feel a little long at close to two hours, and the farcical elements sit uneasily alongside the violence, but perhaps, in some ways, this is the point of the film.
Harding has always been a conflicting and divisive figure.
Even with Janney's superlative turn and Robbie's resolute performance, I, Tonya spins a polarising story, a bastardisation of the American dream that's hard to get to the core of — and definitely one whose black humour and approach will leave you feeling deeply conflicted afterwards.
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Alison Janney
Director: Craig Gillespie