I, Tonya is a classic example of a good film that nonetheless feels like a disappointment because of its inability to live up to its own potential. As a representation of the inescapability and circularity of abuse married with the intense pressures associated with being ‘the best’ at something, it’s depressingly effective. And Margot Robbie’s (recently) Oscar-nominated performance is a coming-out parade for an actress finally given a genuine opportunity to show off her acting chops. This is a frequently entertaining, occasionally devastating film, but instead of beaming from the medal-winners’ podium, it’s languishing in eighth place.
Aussie director Craig Gillespie is clearly a fan of Martin Scorsese, and who can fault him? I, Tonya might be a love letter to disgraced former ice skater Tonya Harding – despite a screenplay that emphasises that this is story has many, unreliable interpretations, the film remains squarely in Harding’s court – but it’s also a love letter to Scorsese.
Goodfellas is the obvious influence, with Gillespie borrowing that film’s irrepressible energy and creativity along with its predilection for very dark comedy. (Indeed, I, Tonya is at its best when it embraces a campy, comedic sensibility sinuously wound around an uncomfortably violent storyline.) But plenty of other Scorsese films have been folded into the dough, whether its Raging Bull – referenced in a pre-show mirror confrontation (I, Tonya’s strongest scene) and actual boxing scenes – or Wolf of Wall Street, a clear influence on a late scene where Harding explicitly indicts the audience in her abuse.
Listen, I love Scorsese. But there’s a reason that most Scorsesian pictures (with the notable exception of Boogie Nights, natch) fall short; what Marty and longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker are doing is incredibly difficult to mimic. It’s more than crash zooms and soundtracks crammed with ‘70s hits and occasional fourth-wall breaks … though, of course, I, Tonya is thick with those. Scorsese is an expressive, imaginative director, but he deploys his big moments with the kind of precision lacking here.
Think about how Scorsese creates and sustains tone in Goodfellas. All throughout the ‘rise’ half of the narrative, the camera pushes in like an excited toddler, but in the ‘fall’ section, the camera is often either static or recoiling from the horror on screen. In I, Tonya, the camera just moves – this way, that way, every which way – in attempt to create excitement and energy, but taken altogether it becomes overwhelming. A smarter approach, I’d argue, would have been to save the film’s flashes of creativity for the bigger moments, rather than trying to show off in every second scene.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Gillespie doesn’t have much confidence in his audience. I can forgive the ever-present narration (another Scorsese crib); it underlines that this is a real story and the particulars might be debatable … while presumably protecting the film from any defamation suits down the track. But do we need to have the characters turn to the camera and tell us “This really happened” or “This never happened”? Fourth wall breaks are effective when used well, but too often Gillepsie and screenwriter Steven Rogers use them to paper over clumsy storytelling.
What I, Tonya needed to be great rather than good was more showing, less telling. To give a specific example: when we first see Tonya competing on the ice, it’s hard to tell what the scene is supposed to convey. The skating – achieved with not-entirely-convincing CGI compositing – is impressive to a layperson such as myself, and many audience members seem suitably impressed. Tonya’s shrew of a mother (Allison Janney, who’s probably winning the Oscar for a formidable but one-note effort) is scowling. The judges are underwhelmed. As an audience member, I should have a clear sense of the emotional arc here, but instead I’m unsure if this is supposed to be a scene about Tonya not being good enough yet, or Tonya being amazing but underappreciated, or something else entirely. Gillespie aims to make the scene thrilling on a surface level – and succeeds! – but fails in providing purpose. A better director – say, Scorsese – could have made this scene sing, rather than have to explain what it means after the fact.