Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Fire and Ice: I, TONYA

Yes, I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie's rollicking whiplash darkly comic recreation of Tonya Harding's ice skating career, is a sports movie with an arc of scandal and tragedy. It would have to be, following the inevitable unlikely rise and tabloid-violence fall of an Olympic hopeful. But what the movie is about underneath these grabby trappings is digging into the psychology of a woman in an abusive relationship. She (Margot Robbie) is used to getting hit. Her prickly, chain-smoking, boozy mother (a tough, biting Allison Janney) chips away at her for years with mean-spirited jabs and frequent smacks. When she escapes, as a late teen, into the arms of her first real boyfriend (Sebastian Stan, with a shyly dangerous charisma unseen in his Marvel pictures), he hits her too. "I told myself, my mom hits me and she loves me," Harding tells us with a honey-drip affection in her voice. It's harrowing and sad, a film intermingling the glowing romance she feels with the bruised eyes and raw scrapes of a battered woman. All the while her skating career is taking off, the thrill of her graceful athleticism sitting next to her hard-scrabble poverty as she has to fight classism and snobbery at every step of the way. She sews her own costumes, which are pretty but not quite the pageant-level shine of the fussy rich girls who dominate the sport. It's not just about talent; it's about image. 

By the time Tonya’s handsome dope of an abusive beau -- now her on-again-off-again husband -- gets it in his head, with prompting from a buddy of enormous, stupidly delusional self-confidence (Paul Walter Hauser, with a convincing bovine look), to intimidate Harding's closest rival, the ensuing chaos threatens to snuff out Tonya's life-long dream. By this point Gillespie -- providing a booming jukebox score, overlapping voice over perspectives, and an active, swirling camera with insistent, pushing editing (a very David O. Russell approach for this usually more restrained journeyman) -- has made it clear the whole incident will be no less than the final parting smack of this abusive husband. Steven Rogers’ screenplay skips around between characters’ competing, overlapping versions of events, sometimes even stopping the action to have another character in the scene turn to the camera and say “I never did this.” It creates a swirling triple-axle of tone, allowing Tonya’s pain to be centered in every telling. This neither excuses her complicity, nor lays all blame at her feet. The film overemphatically pushes and prods at the real complexity under the tabloid sensationalism while using it to raucous effect.

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