Director: Craig Gillespie
Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney
When Craig Gillespie’s Lars And The Real Girl landed in the late noughties it secured a safe place among the better twee American indie dramedies that typified the decade. In the subsequent years Gillespie’s name has fallen somewhat out of interest, predominantly thanks to a series of seemingly for-hire jobs that revealed no connecting sense of authorship. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. TV directors, for instance, are required to shrug off their egos and mannerisms and adapt themselves to a pre-established aesthetic. The better ones are proficient chameleons in this regard. But a film career is perceived and received differently, and the yen for auteurism remains strong.
Perhaps what’s been missing from Gillespie’s output has been a sense of excitement. Disney-backed true-life dramas Million Dollar Arm and The Finest Hours struggled to arouse much fanfare; the former being an amiable if workmanlike sports melodrama with Jon Hamm, the latter a needlessly boring rescue reconstruction. Neither of these films ought to have lacked personality, but they did.
And now here’s I, Tonya, a foul-mouthed biopic in the mold of The Wolf Of Wall Street. Another celebrity pariah awaits deconstruction. There are several untrustworthy narrators, bristling sarcasm throughout, a knowing, even post-modern approach to a stale format. …Except that the self-aware approach has grown old quickly, too. The story we’re recapping here is that of reviled US figure-skater Tonya Harding, played gallingly from age fifteen by Margot Robbie. Robbie showed her mettle as Harley Quinn for David Ayer, sparking a legion of dreadful cosplayers in the process. She brings that same half-crazed rebellious streak to I, Tonya, and Steven Rogers’ script is all too ready for her.
Gillespie’s approach is similar to that seen in recent years by Jean-Marc Vallée with the likes of Dallas Buyers Club. He strips the make-up, glitz and glamour from his stars, gets his camera hard in their faces and has them portray spiky, dislikeable people whose faults in character are played awkwardly for laughs. In this case Tonya Harding, her on-again-off-again beau Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and her heartless mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) all take turns hitting one another. I, Tonya walks a strange path in this regard, forever teasing that it’s about to pry open domestic abuse and really deal with the issue, only to dress it up as pantomime when shit gets serious. It’s a little frustrating, especially as Sebastian Stan (better know for playing Bucky Barnes in the Marvel movies) is out of his element here and shines rather brightly in his despicable role, playing the part with layered confusion that doesn’t require vocalisation.
Robbie knocks it out of the park in a style she’s proven most capable with, as does Janney (though LaVona isn’t the most rounded character she’s taken the reigns of), so it’s no question that this antsy little movie is a heavyweight during prestige performance season. Yet the film routinely struggles to stand up to its cast.
Credit where it’s due, it’s far more engaging that Gillespie’s last. The Finest Hours felt frozen to the point of rigor mortis. Perhaps in reaction to this or maybe simply because the script demands it, Gillespie injects a lot of immediacy into the presentation of I, Tonya. With the aid of cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis he appears to be conspicuously aping the early moves of Paul Thomas Anderson. Long takes, fast zooms and whirling perspectives rekindle the feeling found particularly throughout Boogie Nights and Magnolia. His all soft-rock soundtrack underlines this association in bold (and even cribs a few of the same hits).
This enables I, Tonya to zip along pleasingly, but it doesn’t stop the film from ever-so-slightly outstaying its welcome. It also doesn’t quite distract from the growing suspicion that there’s really little below the film’s flashy costume. Harding’s story became unique following an ‘incident’ in the lead-up to her 1994 Winter Olympics appearance in which one of her competitors, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), was bludgeoned in the knee shortly after coming off of the rink. Harding’s career-defining complicity in this event is the focus of the film’s second hour, but all I, Tonya is able to do is draw a thin line between this and the O.J. Simpson scandal and leave it there. Up front we’re told that the film is based on the accounts of Harding and Gillooly. That seems very much to be the case, as there’s a sense of bias throughout.
Gillespie’s film does pick at America’s love of an underdog. Perhaps, through its wannabe-offensive posturing, I, Tonya is intended to ask us what it is we want from stories from the gutters of society. These characters are poor and America favours prosperity. Fine. But is their depiction as barely civilised grotesques accurate, or is Gillespie pandering knowingly? Is his point that what’s wrong with the depiction of working class America is precisely pictures like this? If so it’s a strange approach to take.
I can’t decide. Despite some great strengths (special mention to the VFX team, who arguably steal the show here by stealth), it still feels as though there’s no assertive sense of ownership. With truth in this story so relative, I don’t feel as though I know Tonya Harding any better. But I definitely don’t know Craig Gillespie.
P.S.: the girl playing 12 year-old Tonya, Mckenna Grace, is such a striking spitting image of Keiran Shipka that I honestly thought some extreme CG trickery was being performed. It’s frickin’ eerie.