Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie: Suicide Squad) is a far cry from the ice princesses who dominated American media coverage throughout the 1980s and ’90s. The atypical Olympian comes from meager means. Her costumes are gaudy and hand-sewn. She performs to heavy metal instead of Chopin. She shoots guns and goes muddin’ in trucks for fun.
Tonya’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney: Mom) is an abusive alcoholic who makes a habit of tearing Tonya down. To escape, Tonya marries the first boy who shows an interest, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan: Logan Lucky), who continues the cycle of violence.
For all that, Tonya is an exceptional skater. She’s the first American to land a triple-axle in competition. She’s got power and height to make her jumps thrilling. But execution isn’t the only point of evaluation. Finding Tonya a poor representative for American skating, judges look for reasons to mark her down.
Seeking acknowledgement, Tonya tries to make herself into the image to which she aspires. She hides her bruises with makeup and plasters a smile on her face. When her husband suggests a plan to help her win the top spot in American skating, she pays no attention.
What follows is a tragedy so shaped by stupidity and outlandish behavior that it’s funny. Finally in the spotlight, Tonya learns that infamy isn’t so satisfying as fame.
Based on the true story of the 1990s’ scandal, I, Tonya is a fierce, hilarious look at Harding and the media circus that made her a star. Director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) shows you the story of her meteoric rise and spectacular fall from the perspectives of each of the principals.
Narrators are frequently unreliable. Events skew depending on who is telling the story. Characters speak to the camera in interview format or break a scene to let the audience know that they disagree with an interpretation of events. The fascinating technique forces audiences to weigh the information they’re given and decide who to trust.
The movie is also an indictment of the media and its popular consumption. A media sensation at the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle, she was hounded by tabloid reporters hungry for a scoop. Their sin is shared with the audience that consumed such stories.
For his predominantly unreliable narrators, Gillespie needed a cast capable of seeming both trustworthy and unhinged — sometimes in the same scene. These actors are gold medal worthy. As the center, Robbie is brilliant, counterbalancing Harding’s tackier aspects with heart-rending vulnerability. This woman desperate for acceptance finds instead differing forms of violent rejection.
Janney is so snarling and fearsome a mother figure that she could scare Joan Crawford. Making it her mission to show Tonya she’s a disappointment, LaVona throws things at her and pays people to heckle her at competitions.
You need not remember the Harding/Kerrigan scandal to find I, Tonya a winner.
Prospects: Great Dramedy • R • 120 mins.
New this Week
After the Twin Towers fell, America was in shock. As the nation reeled, the army sent a team of Special Forces soldiers into Afghanistan against a warlord. Starting the Bush administration’s War on Terror with extremely limited resources, these soldiers rode into battle on horseback.
Filled with patriotic imagery and awe for our military prowess, 12 Strong is meant to lift spirits and instill pride. Don’t look for an examination on our motives for the war in this love letter.
Prospects: Flickering • R • 130 mins.
Den of Thieves
A band of violent, brilliant bank robbers is embarrassing the police and terrifying the citizens of Los Angeles. To combat them, the LA County Sheriff’s Department empowers an elite unit, no questions asked.
Meanwhile, the heisters are planning the ultimate job: robbing the Federal Reserve.
It’s January, the month studios dump movies that have no chance of making money or earning recognition. This latest by Gerard Butler follows that tradition.
Prospects: Bleak • R • 140 mins.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is London’s most famous couturier. He and sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) have run the city’s fashion scene for years, dressing starlets to royals.
Reynolds has a reputation with women outside of dressmaking. He cycles through them, abandoning them as soon as they fail to inspire him. His newest muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), refuses and creates a new set of standards.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson adores twisting social norms and playing with power dynamics. The rumored final film in Day-Lewis’ storied career, The Phantom Thread promises to be a triumph.
Prospects: Bright • R • 130 mins.