Right off the bat: this is not a review of the film, but if I had to keep it short I would have to give I, Tonya a solid 5/5. Go see it, but if you want to understand why you should see it, read this.
“They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate…” – Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding.
I think there’s a fundamental choice that filmmakers make when telling a story. They have to make the decisions to either emphasize story or character. Now, most film snobs, myself included, will argue that story is character; which, to be fair, is true. You can’t have a story without characters. Well, you can, but it’ll end up more as an experiment or a spectacle rather than anything of substance. Case in point, this year’s film A Ghost Story. There aren’t really any characters there. There’s no one to really grab a hold to, because the characters don’t push the story along. Instead, the story happens without the thrust of a character. It’s a pretty experiment with some dazzling spectacle, but it didn’t impart anything within me beyond what most high school philosophy classes will discuss. However, unlike A Ghost Story, I, Tonya, is reliant only on how the character drags the story along kicking and screaming.
In case you don’t know, I, Tonya is about the infamous Tonya Harding. She is the 1991 U.S. champion and 1991 World Championship silver medallist. She was also a two-time Olympian and a two-time Skate America Champion. Let’s also not forget her involvement in the maiming of her supposed friend Nancy Kerrigan, a rival figure skater who went on to win bronze at the ’92 Olympics while Harding placed fourth. Now that we have the necessities out-of-the-way, let’s talk about Margot Robbie and how she handles the stress of filling in those skates.
You see, Tonya Harding didn’t have the best life. She came from a broken and abusive lower-class family, who married an abuse and terrible individual, and eventually became an amalgamation of the entire world snubbing their nose at her because of her upbringing, presentation, and gauche personality. No one liked her, so why would we want to see a movie about this person? Enter stage-left: postmodernism.
A quick Google search will tell you that it was a huge movement to subvert the current trends in all arts. It was openly rejecting what society wants from you and supplying your own spin to the current reality. That’s exactly what Tonya Harding stood for. She didn’t care what the world was going to say about her, she just wanted a fair chance; which, to be fair, isn’t asking a whole lot. Up until a point in the film, one could argue that on the ice, Harding can’t be abused anymore. This is supposed to be her element, her time to shine, but when she starts competing, she realizes that’s not the case. It’s then that Tonya realizes exactly how she’s perceived through the lens of someone else. And when she’s met with that resistance, how does she respond?
“SUCK MY D***!”
It’s hilarious, but it’s also an embrace of postmodernism within the character arc. You see, Margot Robbie’s performance goes up to eleven at this point and cannot be tamed. She rejects what the traditional culture of ice skating is and makes it her own way. Sure, she tries to fit in, but we all know that a tiger can’t change it’s stripes; just like Harding can’t change her red neck. We, the audience, cannot help but be drawn into this. The general public is complicit in the day-to-day roadblocks that come up. We accept them as facts of life and move on from them, trying to find another way around. That’s not what Harding does in I, Tonya instead she takes a big metal bat and breaks down the whole wall.
If we look at cinema over history, we’ve been introduced to a myriad of character archetypes, formulaic stories, and linear presentations. We all know the traditional man vs. stories that run rampant through the arts; so, when a breath of fresh air comes in, we can’t help but champion it. That’s why we’re drawn to a character like Harding and why she was such a media sensation in the 90s. We want to deconstruct the entire system and build it in a way that best suits us and that’s the backbone of postmodernism.
Think about the films you love. I can guess that if you really love a story, it’s because of the characters. And not because they’re cookie cutter, 2D type archetypes, but because they’re flawed and reject the societal norms. However, not every single character that comes out of great cinema is an example of a postmodern protagonist. I would never consider Rick from Casablanca as postmodern. He’s a zeitgeist character and falls into the already established “man with a troubled past” character archetype. He’s not trying to shake that off either, he’s just trying to make it through the days. While on the other side we have Harding in I, Tonya not adhering to any set of standards set forth. She’s her own tour de force and that’s how she wants it.
Another great example of a postmodern protagonist is Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri. She’s a grieving mother who takes the law into her own hands and starts trying to shake things up to get everything she needs to complete her arc. She rejects even the laws of the land to accomplish what she needs and it’s enthralling to watch. You can’t peel your eyes away as these two women (McDormand and Robbie) tear through their films with a fervor that’s unmatched. However, imagine if these characters were to fall into the traditional molds of storytelling.
I, Tonya would be a safe biopic about how she was the first woman to land a triple axel jump in a US competition. It would be a powerful story of overcoming abuse and becoming the best. And while there are shreds of that in the final product, it’s a much more murky ride. Similarly, Three Billboards would be about a woman following the letter of the law and bringing the killers to justice. I don’t want to spoil that story, but that’s not even close to what happens. These films don’t sound that interesting on paper, but they would probably be just fine if made in that way.
Now, we could argue that these are just modern characters and not post modern; so what makes them beyond the modern sensibilities? Well, modernity implies evidence and certainty, while postmodernity embraces belief. Not belief in the traditional sense, like believing in Santa, but that every law or nature of our world is inspired by a belief system. To postmodern theorists 2+2=4 because we believe that to be the case, while modern thinkers will not dispute that fact because they’ve done their due diligent research. In relation to I, Tonya and Three Billboards, these characters believe that what they are doing is the appropriate thing. Not based in a fact or anything like that, but the belief system that their own moral compass created. These characters want us to question the world around us and be the change we want. Unlike their modern counterparts, these postmodern characters aren’t presenting us facts, they are presenting their own world view and we’re along for the ride.
And if all of this seems like I’m talking down to you or that I’m speaking some absolute truth, I urge you to embrace postmodernity like Margot Robbie does with one simple line:
“…and the haters always say: ‘Tonya, tell the truth!’ There’s no such thing as truth. I mean it’s bullshit!” – Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding.
I, Tonya comes out December 8th, 2017.