Director Craig Gillespie’s dark comedy about disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding liberally borrows Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking trademarks, starting with his penchant for kinetic biopics. There are slow-motion pans, fast dolly zooms, a period-appropriate rock soundtrack, and actors who break the fourth wall. Heck, the final shot is of the blood-stained mat in a boxing ring.
But if you’re going to ape Scorsese, you might as well do it right. Gillespie breathes a breezy, fresh perspective into a true American tale seemingly picked clean by the tabloid media that was just starting to infiltrate the mainstream when Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s Olympics teammate and rival, was kneecapped in 1994 by Harding’s goons.
Reared in less privileged circles than many of her peers, Harding (Margot Robbie), the first female skater to land a triple axel, brings a determined, belligerent athletic mind-set to a milieu of ballerinas on ice. While her competitors don designer wardrobes, she must wear homely homemade outfits, including a fur made from rabbit pelts. While others skate to Vivaldi, Harding’s routines are set to ZZ Top.
Gillespie portrays Harding as alternately blameworthy and blameless for misdeeds both personal and notorious. Her terrible mother (an award-worthy Allison Janney) emotionally stunts her daughter as payback for whatever sacrifices she made while pushing Harding to competitive heights. Her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), is an abuser whose idiocy is surpassed only by that of his self-delusional pal-in-crime, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).
“The incident,” as all of I, Tonya’s major players call the attack, fills the film’s second half. It’s a comedy of errors with a Rashomon-like fix on the truth—a fittingly dysfunctional culmination of Harding’s dysfunctional yet irresistible story.