Zoë Hayden
7 min readDec 30, 2017


Hi, this contains spoilers for the movie I, Tonya, obviously; even though the movie is based on a true story which you probably already know the details of.

Here is the thing about I, Tonya that is so striking. It captures perfectly the fact that the journey to greatness (or attempted greatness) is one that is often taken totally and utterly alone. We’ve seen this in sports movies before, even in women’s sports stories like this September’s wonderful Battle of the Sexes, but never in a way that literally bleeds off the screen like this movie does.

I, Tonya is a different kind of inspirational and a different kind of sports story. It’s a dirty and nasty and funny film, shot in a style that makes the life of Tonya Harding rather like This Is Cinerama. You’re at eye level with her the whole time, jumping in the air to land the triple axel, or headed for impact with a mirror. It makes you sick and it makes you cry and it makes you giggle at things you maybe shouldn’t giggle at. Like LaVona calling her daughter a cunt, or Tonya’s rabbit skin coat made of rabbits that she shot herself, or Shawn Eckhardt’s apparently very serious delusion that he works in counterintelligence. It’s uncomfortable because of how real it feels, to the point that you can’t help but laugh inappropriately to relieve the tension, and then when it’s actually funny, our onscreen Tonya is seemingly aware. By the end of the movie, when you’ve seen our heroine at her best and her worst, you want to reach your hand out and help her clamber up from the ground, even if she is about to hit you in the face.

Here are the things that I, Tonya touches in ways that almost no other movie I’ve ever seen has ever touched, even a little:

  • Domestic violence. Jeff Gillooly beats the crap out of Tonya and the script doesn’t hold back. It’s very alarmingly honest about how abuse comes in cycles. Jeff is charming and likeable. He is also a horrifying abuser who makes no effort to change. They are in love, but they also need to never be in the same room together ever again. Sebastian Stan is the perfect choice for this character because he plays Jeff as goofy and self-effacing. You never once feel that Jeff is truly evil. You see him how Tonya sees him. The violence and terror that she is subjected to from him is the same violence and terror we see in our friends and boyfriends and fathers and uncles and husbands who have been abusers, and who we still loved. It’s fucking jarring. We don’t want to see Tonya get hit, but we have to, because that is what happened. And for a film that is so funny it never once makes Jeff’s abuse a joke or a punchline or a plot device. It’s a fact of Tonya’s life. She is bigger and more than it.
  • Parental abuse. Allison Janney’s LaVona is unbelievably cruel and has absolutely no redeeming qualities. Of course she loves her daughter, but in this case, that isn’t a redeeming quality. The woman simply destroys everything she touches, perhaps doubly so for something she loves. The film is just as blunt about LaVona’s constant abuse as it is about Jeff’s, but we also see her as Tonya sees her, and Tonya probably had to imbibe something of her mother to survive that onslaught, which makes it funny in a strange way. We laugh when little Tonya flips off her fellow youth skaters and when she tells a judge to suck her dick, but it’s also very clear that those behaviors are learned from her mother and learned because of extreme cruelty. But rooting for Tonya is easy. She takes all of the worst things about her mother and, eventually, transforms them and makes them her own. Again, she is bigger than the worst things about herself. She is still crass and difficult and a little narcissistic. But she will kick your ass.
  • Solitude. The most intense moment in a film that is basically a succession of intense moments is Tonya doing her makeup alone in Lillehammer. Her color choices are harsh and the lighting is harsher. Her tears and cream blush are so stark that you can practically feel them sticking on your own cheeks. It gives way to a real-life disaster, in which Tonya’s skate lace is broken and she has just 60 seconds to get onto the ice for the fucking Olympics. Here we see Tonya completely within herself, and also a consummate professional. She is desperate to make it on time, and if anyone would do the routine with a busted lace and risk breaking an ankle, it’s Tonya — but after her routine starts she goes to the judges crying and takes the extra time to have it fixed. Tonya knows she’s playing with house money here, but she’d rather give herself a real chance to win. She comes in eighth. And then she has skating taken away from her. The framing-device present-day interviews with Tonya show how alone she still is. Not physically, but emotionally and intellectually; she always has to be a step ahead of everyone. Jeff and Shawn and LaVona took away any chance she had at protecting herself, of maintaining that level of control, of succeeding. It’s fucking heartbreaking how alone Tonya is. Tonya would have rather gone to jail than give up skating because skating was her only intellectual and emotional equal. It was the only thing that made order out of the abject chaos in her life. Of course she wanted it to be as garish and technically perfect as possible. That’s Tonya. She’s not soft, despite what LaVona might say. She’s sharp and neon.
  • Absurdity. Shawn Eckhardt is the ultimate fucking clown and the wrench in this whole damn machine. You’d be tempted to call bullshit, but Shawn in real life is basically the same as Shawn in the film. The fact that Tonya had the misfortune of meeting Jeff and Shawn is just unbelievable. You know the gal ain’t perfect, but with those two assholes around, she never had a chance. But the most absurd and gutting thing that happens in the entire picture is Tonya’s dead-on accusation to the audience that they are the ones victimizing her, that we are her abusers. Because we are consuming her at every turn, eating up Margot Robbie’s incredible performance, watching her get hit in the face and fall down and fuck up over and over and over again. . .

As the slimy but reliable Hard Copy reporter implies, the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan was a time in American history when the 24-hour news cycle was brand new. Tonya Harding was loved because she was consumable, not because of who she was. It’s no wonder Tonya doesn’t trust anybody — she shouldn’t. None of us have earned that trust. It’s breathtaking, really, to see a film so eager to make fools of its audience while its heroine gets knocked down and gets back up without any help from basically anybody whatsoever.

This is a tough film to judge philosophically because of its basis in real events and the fact that all of the key players (well, except Shawn) are still alive and well. For the real Tonya Harding’s part, she has said that the film mostly gets it right.

I have struggled since seeing it yesterday with the idea that the domestic violence shown in the movie is gratuitous. I do think that a meaningful choice was made in how DV was shot and portrayed in the movie. I am not sure that all of it was needed, but I did feel that every moment of it was terrifyingly realistic. And considering what a sack of shit Jeff Gillooly is, I think it would have been an extreme and unforgivable error to not show what he did to Tonya as honestly as possible based on her lived experience.

The argument would have to be made that the movie shouldn’t exist if you don’t agree with the heavy inclusion of DV in the film. I think that that’s a fair argument to make, and could be made about any film that fictionalizes real events. But it feels especially potent with this movie. The subject matter is very, very raw and any potential takeaway from the extreme violence and brutality depicted is dubious.

But overall, I, Tonya resonates, and it’s beautiful. The cinematography is aggressive and innovative. I can’t get the visuals out of my head and so much of Robbie’s Tonya is indelibly relatable. It’s not a movie for everyone, but for the people it is for, it will hit hard. That is: 90’s aesthetic nuts (Tonya’s costumes are rendered perfectly), crass women and femmes, people who know what it’s like to be hated, people who have been hurt and have come out on the other side of that hurt both somehow diminished and with more to give. If you are any of these things, and if you think you are in a head space where you can handle the violence, it is worth making it out to commune with Tonya Harding.