There’s something awful fucky about the people who would make a decision to make an uptempo comic drama caper flick about domestic abuse. I ain’t sure if these people even realised the film they were making, but when you’re constructing a montage of a husband beating his wife set some cliché dad-rock needledrop it’s not like you’re missing the forest for the trees. It’s right there in front of you.
Tonya Harding, or at least the version that this film creates, was a champion American figure skater who married young to a shitty abusive man. Then nothing important happens in her life until they hatch a fun little plot that concludes with the assault of one of her major rivals before the 1994 winter Olympics. The film rests all of its weight on that single moment, because right then the film makes sense.
The assault, while a serious matter in real life, is a grand farce: perpetrated by incompetents who don’t even know what their victim is supposed to look like, at the behest of a clientele who never wanted it to happen at all. You can feel the zany Coen brothers’ vibes just melting off it. And then the aftermath, where the cast blithely stumble into the patient and waiting arms of the FBI. It’s a fun impulse and would be for any film that don’t make its main character an abused 20 year old woman.
I keep bringing it up but it’s hard to properly articulate how disgusting this film feels. It steadfastly refuses to engage with its material. Sure there’s points where it wants you to cry, but only on its terms, only when the film lets you. It binds its audience like a straightjacket, desperately acting the poor magician, struggling to misdirect your attention from what it’s flashing before you. That’s impossible though, because the whole joint finds itself caught in the orbit of Margot Robbie’s central performance.
She’s amazing. In her you get a sense of the groundlessness of the abused. There is no world around her, because whatever reality is whatever her abuser constructs. She flits, light as some graceful bird, only paying attention to the current moment because confronting the future or the past is only a lesson in the inevitability of pain. And it’s pain caused by someone you love, and you hate that in them and you hate yourself. You either force yourself into obliviousness or break down.
Robbie nails both. Then we’ll cut to a scene where her abusive husband is playing pool with his wacky fat BFF and you’re supposed to laugh at it. Or where her gaslighting mother is cussing out a skating coach and it’s so totally outrageous right? It’s exhausting, you have to keep your guard up the whole time because the film itself is engaged in its own particular brand of abuse. The film wants you to take Tonya’s side but, unable to reckon with the abuse it argues built her, it turns the monsters into clowns because clowns are more palatable, they’re easier to dismiss.
Like, the loudest comes in the most didactic way possible. The film sets up this device where (it’s based on interviews conducted with the real life versions of the central characters here) the cast, made up to look all old, deliver narration to an interviewer’s camera. It’s all fuzzy and grainy, think early Errol Morris interviews. The older Tonya is describing her abusive ex. Jake Gillooly, the abusive ex is categorically denying it. He presents his own version of events, one in which he is abused by Tonya.
We see the young Tonya chase him out the house shooting after him with a shotgun as he leaves. She turns, smiles cheekily at the camera, ‘This never happened.’ You can see it in the trailer. I don’t know how they intended this; an armed, confident version of the character looking at us, owning her space and confidently preaching of her role as a victim. It comes across so tasteless.
So, the act of revenging upon an abuser is something that she just chose not to do. Or that in its very construction the film must decree her victimisation in order for us the audience to be comfortable participating in it. She comes out of herself not to own her abuse, not to become empowered in it, but as a weaselly excuse by the filmmakers to minimise the perceived suffering. I sincerely doubt that’s what they were going for.
Ew. It’s gross anyway. The film also has the Logan Lucky problem of class, which it knows how to utilise as an idea. It knows it wants to like, maybe champion the poor and the outcasts. But it don’t know how to do that and make it genuine. I think it’s because both these films have a genuine aversion to labour. It’s probably a trite aphorism or something but it is work that defines the working class. We don’t see that.
I get that like, big movie, big actors, y’all ain’t gonna waste your time and budget just on filming rehearsals and practising. But the girl put in the fucking work. It’s how she got good. The film wants to be a message, it wants to stand up, its most thuddingly ‘powerful’ moment when the lead accused me, in the audience, a two year old foreigner at the time these events occurred, of being complicit. And it’s version of poverty is confined to shitty men and shitty houses and shitty diners and trucks.
The heroine at the middle of it all, a victim. All her strength eluded for convenience’s sake. It might be too troubling for us to confront her pride and fury and passion. Knowing that with all that she can be made so weak. A story which sides, not by deliberate choice I’m sure, perversely with the mentality of the abuser. And I spent a lot of this comedy in tears.
I, Tonya is currently screening in UK cinemas.