HomeMoviesI, Tonya: Margot Robbie Delivers the Triple Axel of Acting

I, Tonya: Margot Robbie Delivers the Triple Axel of Acting

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I, Tonya Plot Summary:

Based on the true story of the rise and fall of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), and the events surrounding the infamous knee bashing incident of her competition, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver).

Growing up in the nineties, there are three news stories that will always be ingrained in my head: The Clinton/Monica Lewisnsky scandal.  O.J. Simpson.  Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecap.  Even as a kid, I remember this story was everywhere.  It was like a real life soap opera being played out in front of our eyes.  If this had happened in the age of social media, I can’t even fathom the absurd levels this would have reached.  I hate to use the cliché, but this movie is very relevant today.  It’s a story about how a 24-hour news cycle completely wrecks a human being.  Again, what’s true?  What isn’t true?  I don’t know.  All I know is that director Craig Gillespie and Margot Robbie deliver a modern day tragedy, leaving an emotional impact for one of the best movies of 2017.

This screenplay is brilliant because it covers Tonya Harding from so many angles.  The first act sets up her pure love of figure skating.  At the age of four, she’s like a Jedi prodigy.  McKenna Grace, who plays the young Harding, was very effective.  In a sport so heavily weighed on grace, Harding was like the outlaw biker in a sea of pageant queens.

Harding is clearly the best skater, but never gets a fair shake because of her edge.  I legitimately got frustrated watching this.  There’s a moment when Harding goes out to the parking lot and asks one of the judges why she isn’t getting the same scores.  The judge tells her, quite bluntly, that it’s not just about execution.  It’s presentation.  Tonya Harding simply asks the question, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?”  It’s one of those moments where I wanted to stand up and shout, “YES!”  It truly affected me.

The film also focuses on Harding’s personal life growing up poor, and being the victim of two abusive relationships.  Allison Janney plays Harding’s mother, who’s like a drunk version of J.K. Simmons in Whiplash.  While not Harding’s teacher, she treats her skating like a taskmaster.  Allison Janney will get nominated for an Oscar.  Lock it up.  While certainly hilarious, this character is also a horrible human being.  She hits Tonya and makes warped excuses for why raising her as a champion is better than giving Tonya what she really needs.  She’s so repulsive, that throwing a knife at her daughter isn’t even her most despicable act.

The other major relationship is Tonya’s boyfriend and later husband, Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan.  While a little more complex and sympathetic, he’s still a scum bag who also abuses Tonya.  Stan does a remarkable job here, playing many sides to Gillooly.  He’s likable, comedic, pathetic, a loose cannon, but also pretty terrible.

While there are times when Harding sabotages herself by drinking or staying out too late, the film makes it clear she had a number of personal hurdles to overcome.  Harding has a fantastic line about how Kerrigan whines and complains about getting hit once, yet she was constantly hit all the time.  That was brilliant.

Have I really not talked about Margot Robbie’s performance yet?  Not only will she be nominated for an Oscar, but she could win it.  When she has to be rough, Robbie nails it.  When she has to be broken, Robbie nails it.  One of the most effective tools is how the film creates these mock, behind the scene interviews.  This is where Robbie shines brightest.  One of Harding’s biggest accomplishments is when she becomes the first US female skater to perform the triple axel in competition.  The joy Robbie has in talking about this immediately sinks to pain, as she looks down trodden at the floor at how nobody asks her about this anymore.  It was an incredible acting moment.

There’s a whole laundry list of moments like this, including her monologue about the press, staring at the mirror before skating in the Olympics and her reaction when she gets her final court sentence.  That was downright devastating.  There’s no question – Margot Robbie gives the performance of a lifetime that’s very akin to Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

What’s ironic is that once we get to the actual incident, it takes over the entire film, and Robbie is actually pushed to the background.  While this would be a problem in any other movie, the incident really should be front and center.  This is where Gillespie’s direction really shines.  He captures the tone and absurdity of this entire situation beautifully.

While we’ve been talking about Oscar chances for Robbie and Janney, Paul Walter Hauser should also be considered for Best Supporting Actor.  Hauser plays Shawn Eckhardt, Gillooly’s friend and Harding’s bodyguard who essentially “masterminds” the entire crime.  He’s funny, but sad and pathetic at the same time, boasting like he’s Lex Luthor, as he sits in seedy bars eating mozzarella sticks.  He couldn’t be more stupid, and Hauser’s performance captures this flawlessly.

While the absurdity of the incident is entertaining to watch, it shifts seamlessly back to tragedy.  As funny as this movie is, it really is tragic.  As the movie flash forwards to Harding’s later career as a boxer, it’s sad to watch.  This is again where Gillespie makes his mark.  He doesn’t just sit back and let Robbie do all the work, which is what happens with Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour.  He enhances the film.  The way he edits the final sequence really does have that Aronofsky/Wrestler feel.

The only major criticism is the length.  The back and forth between Harding and Gillooly gets repetitive.  Other than that, this is an exceptional motion picture.  It’s a sad tale of how a few morons turned something ridiculous into a national phenomenon that ruined what Tonya Harding loved most.  She was never given a chance at a comeback.

With a great soundtrack and some of the best fourth wall breaking I’ve ever seen, this film brilliantly captures a brief moment in time that dominated all forms of media.  Like gluttonous animals, we ate it up.  This movie shows us the tragic aftermath of consuming that meal.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (Really Great)

Daniel Cohen
Daniel Cohen
Daniel Cohen likes movies and bagels, and that’s pretty much it. Aside from writing Box Office predictions, Daniel hosts the monthly Batman by the Numbers Podcast on the Breakcast feed. Speaking of Batman, If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.


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