This essay is by our guest writer Charlie Dykstal.
CW: discussion of abuse
As should be no secret to anyone who has seen the news recently, a sort of re-contextualization of abuse is occurring. The issue is a complex one, where deeply institutional harm is being outed and discussed openly. This social movement evokes a feature of human nature: when our perceptions of each other change, so does our perception of art. The recent discussion of the films we love has been forever changed, as the recontextualization of abuse has set in.
This brings us to I, Tonya. Craig Gellipse’s story of the famous/infamous Tonya Harding shows no hero, protagonist, or savior. The bleak picture is a story about the very tragedy being discussed currently: abuse.
Let us begin with the title character. Robbie’s Harding is scattered, abrasive, and wounded. We watch her receive abuse from everyone in her life. First, the physical abuse from her mother and her husband. This is followed by the emotional abuse she experiences as the world of skating rejects her and the lifestyle that she found most healthy: independence. This leads to Harding returning to her abusers, something that is unfortunately common in tragic situations. It’s strange to watch this decision, as a viewer. It seems illogical, uncomfortable, and contradictory as we watch Harding return to the relationships so destructive to her.
Within these relationships, the contradictions shown in this film in are in explicit display. While hearing stories of Jeff Gillooly beating Tonya, the interview portion of Gillooly denies that the encounter ever happened. We watch Harding fire a shotgun at her husband, turn to the camera, and claim that she “never did this.” We see the banter between Harding and her mother written in a comedic fashion followed directly by her mother abusing her. It’s jarring, it’s bizarre, and it’s tonal mess. The idea of the very tragic topic of abuse being presented in this strange, kind of comedic tone is very unsettling.
Scattered and inconsistent is a common theme in the film, with the next example being the technical work. A written timeline of this film would be a headache to look at. The editing forces the viewer to re-adjust their mind as perspective switches from child Tonya, to adult Tonya, to adult Gillooly, to child Tonya and back again. The pacing is overwhelming, and further adds to the chaos and uncomfortable feeling of this film.
Which brings us to the point of all of this messiness. The film’s tone and shift thereof is a representation of how Harding, an abuse victim, views the world and the events of this film. The world doesn’t make any sense. Abuse doesn’t make any sense. It’s hard to come up with an explanation of why victims continue to go back to those who hurt them, as abuse wears on the mental states of its victims so much. Abuse, especially abuse predicated since childhood, is filled with contradictions. There is no other way to tell the story of Tonya Harding than the messy, jarring format described above. The unorthodox format, the jarring editing, and the uncomfortable tonal shifts mimic how Harding is as a person, and how she tells her story, perfectly.
The final shot of the film, we watch blood spill from Harding’s mouth in slow motion as her narration tells of one final contradiction. The issue of truth in an abusive relationship is hard to decipher. This film has played with truth throughout, with characters denying their actions directly after the film portrays them. A statement on truth “not existing” directly followed by a proclamation of the truth of her story concludes the film. It is this kind of fallacy that this film relishes in. Stories don’t have to make sense to be accurate. I, Tonya shows the story of Tonya Harding, a story of abuse, in the most realistic way possible, one that makes no sense at all.
Charlie Dykstal is a guest writer for Much Ado About Cinema. If you would like to contribute your own essay or review to the site, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or use the contact form provided.