Margot Robbie reminds me of Al Pacino.
Wait, before you start laughing, let me explain. Robbie went through the same sort of early career milestones that many young actors face, including the required-for-Australians step of starring on the soap opera Neighbors for a few years. She made the jump to American TV with a role on a short-lived series called Pan Am, and when that was canceled, she could have easily found herself facing the sort of instant extinction that many almost-happened starlets deal with.
Instead, she took a small role in a Richard Curtis movie and won a major role in a Martin Scorsese film, and she attacked them both with surgical precision and a bodybuilder’s strength. When Leonardo DiCaprio earned his fourth Oscar nomination for The Wolf Of Wall Street, it wasn’t a shock. He threw everything he had at that role, and it’s almost exhausting watching how hard he worked in every scene. What’s really impressive is how easily Margot Robbie keeps up with him in every scene in the film, and I would argue she actually owns him in several sequences. In that one year, she became one of the most interesting young actors around, and watching the choices she’s made since then, I’m convinced she’s driven by the same hunger that made me such a fan of guys like Pacino and De Niro and Hoffman in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Back then, it felt like those guys were almost in competition with each other, determined to push themselves further, to play the most outrageous or extreme role, and to attack everything with a ferocious hunger.
In some ways, that’s why Robbie was the perfect choice to play Tonya Harding, who is best known now simply for her tabloid moment. While I don’t think Robbie remotely looks like a teenager at this point, she does great work at playing Tonya from her teen years to today, and that’s because she gets it. She understands the hunger that drove Tonya, and she plays her with respect. The film itself is pitched at a certain broad dark comedy level, but Robbie’s not kidding around. There’s a ferocity to the way she attacks every practice, every competition, every scene. She has to be ferocious, though, if she was raised by LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), who might as well be the dictionary entry for “ballbuster.”
The way the film is structured, all of the major players get a turn to tell their version of things, and the filmmakers acknowledge upfront that none of the interviews agreed, and no one was particularly trustworthy. It gives them leeway to present this as a series of impressionistic takes on the events that brought Tonya into the orbit of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his buddy Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Stan’s never had more fun onscreen, and Hauser’s performance is an all-timer, never tipping over into the Saturday Night Live-style parody that would be so easy with a character as real-life outrageous as Eckhardt.
One of the things I like most about I, Tonya is the way it examines class in America, a subject I think we are afraid to really deal with because of how it makes us feel about ourselves. Tonya Harding was an impressive athlete, a genuinely talented skater, but from day one, she was not the package that U.S. Figure Skating wanted to present. She was, to be blunt, White Trash. I say that as someone who spent most of my formative years in Florida and Tennessee and Texas, living a lifestyle that would absolutely be called White Trash by many, and I remember what it felt like to constantly feel like you’re a few steps behind in terms of what your family can afford. When Tonya gets so frustrated that she confronts the judges, she asks, “Why can’t it just be about the skating” — a heartbreaking question, because she already knows the answer. She knows what people see when they look at her. She knows that they’re judging her for her clothes, her skates, her coat, and that her actual skating is the last thing they’re looking at. She bristles against it, and she can’t help but take it out on her coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson), who is constantly pushing Tonya to consider her presentation.
So much of what Tonya is up against in the film is simply her own worst instincts. It’s true in her rocky relationship with her mother, it’s true when she falls in love with Gillooly, and it’s true when she decides that she wants her one last shot at Olympic glory. Tonya makes choices that blow up in her face, and she blames them on everyone but herself. Her refusal to take responsibility for anything that happens to her is the one most damning trait, because for the most part, she is portrayed as a real person here, sympathetic to a larger degree than anyone who remembers the tabloid coverage of her might expect. I don’t think Robbie’s delusional enough to declare Tonya any kind of hero, but she plays her as someone who was dealt a short hand and played it twice as smart.
The film lays the real blame for that attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the feet of Gillooly and Eckhardt, and there is a deranged Three Stooges quality to the sequences where the attack is carried out. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much Tonya did or didn’t know. Her real-life turmoil was bound to burn her professional skating life down at some point. That’s just how she was living, how she’d been raised, how she was taught to deal with things. Robbie plays Tonya as a survivor, a little blonde fireplug who gets bounced off of walls and doors and mirrors and the ice, yet she’s unstoppable. She just pops back up like the Terminator, determined and laser-focused.
Allison Janney is getting some serious awards heat for her work as Tonya’s mother, and while it’s easy to assume she’s playing her bigger than life, she’s really not. LaVona is a very particular American Monster — the withholding mother and the abusive father all rolled up in one sick package. Her relationship with Tonya is so toxic and horrible that it’s hard to believe they decided to try to lean into the dark comedy of the thing. I give director Craig Gillespie credit for trying to make it all work as a whole. He comes close to pulling everything together, and I like enough of it that I would recommend I, Tonya. But he leans too heavily on CG trickery for the ice skating, which seems to defuse the movie at times, reminding us that what we’re watching is fake. This isn’t a typical sports film where we need to see these long recreations of specific athletic prowess. This is about everything but the skating, and when the film lands the punches that it throws, it bruises deeply. There is a legitimate anger here, and you get the feeling it was made as dark comedy because the alternative would be almost too grim to bear.
Tech credits are solid if unexceptional. Nicolas Karakatsanis does a good job of creating a sort of candy-colored memory of the ‘90s, and the film’s many plates are kept spinning by Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing. It still feels like Gillespie is better with actors and with tone than he is with the nuts and bolts of bringing his film to life. He’s gotten slicker since Lars and the Real Girl, but this might be the first time he’s really brought his cast together in something that lives and breathes, and it feels like a pretty major leap forward for him. It’s been a decade since he’s shown this kind of promise as a filmmaker, and I can’t help but feel that even Gillespie feels a kinship to Tonya and that hunger that drove her.
That hunger can be everything, including the difference between those who succeed, and those who fail. It can also be a curse, because it can drive us to make terrible choices. Robbie’s the good version of the story; Tonya’s the bad. Seeing the two of them collide may not be a great film from start to finish, but it feels like it’s vital and thrilling and important for Robbie’s overall body of work. If she keeps developing roles for herself that are this strong, Robbie is going to be one of the most exciting movie stars of the coming decade.
Running time: 121 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic