The true crime revival of 2016 and 2017 has continued to produce excellent, thought-provoking content that pushes the boundaries of the genre. While more traditional inquiries into the existential and juridical ramifications of actual criminal behavior have captivated the nation (with docu-series like "The Keepers" and dramas like "Mindhunter" garnering mainstream approval), filmmakers have also begun more artistic and post-modern experimentations.
"Casting JonBenét" explored the multiple truths behind one of America's most notorious murders, and it turned the genre on its head by featuring interviews with actors from the dramatic re-telling along with their personal reflections on the case. Now, "I, Tonya" continues this more avant-garde trend, exploring the multiplicity of truths behind all supposedly "true" stories.
Although not the sole focus of the movie, the main subject covered in "I, Tonya" is the conspiracy and assault on Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, an athletic rival of the film's subject. The official story goes like this: An inept hitman by the name of Shane Stant used a metal baton to damage Kerrigan's knee in anticipation of her participation in the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships. It was later determined that the attack was ordered and orchestrated by Harding's paramour at the time, Jeff Gillooly, and her (quite obviously incompetent) bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt.
Harding would go on to win the event, leading to her selection (along with Kerrigan's) in the 1994 Olympic team. The extent to which Harding was involved with the planning of the assault became a topic of worldwide conversation. Harding avoided jail time, but was ultimately banned for life from participating in United States Figure Skating Association-run events as either a skater or a coach.
Starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney (who both received Golden Globe nominations for their performances in the film) and Sebastian Stan, "I, Tonya" is less about discovering the truth behind the crime and more about exploring the fractured actualities behind the notorious 1994 attack. Directors conducted interviews with the key players of the crime and the eponymous anti-heroine's life: Jeff Gillooly (played by Stan), LaVona Fay Golden (Harding's mother, played by Janney) and Harding herself (played by Robbie). The interview sequences were then re-staged with the actors, who also dramatically re-enacted various scenes from Harding's life. Contradictory accounts were all depicted and given equal merit, weight and time on screen (even scenes that never actually occurred, which includes a false scenario in which Harding herself attacks Kerrigan).
Stylistically, director Craig Gillespie was clearly inspired by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Guest and Sofia Coppola. The cool sleekness of the cinematography and stylish character intros which displayed names in clever fonts comes from Tarantino; the quirky, yet moving mockumentary humor comes from Guest; and the sensitivity and deep empathy for the characters comes from Coppola. But the fact that stylistic influences can even be gleaned shows how far we are from traditional true crime cinema, which generally aims for a sort of journalistic impartiality.
The complex story of Kerrigan's attack has innumerable twists and turns. But by presenting multiple versions of the story (filtered through a layer of occasionally goofy, semi-ironic aesthetics), the film questions if we'll ever have the ability to really solve this massive case. "I, Tonya" makes clear the obvious artificiality of cinema and its inability to arrive at one single truth. It turns out, everyone's version of events has at least some validity.
What is the truth, anyway, if not the midpoint between several conflicting anecdotes? Are any true crime movies truly objective? These bigger-picture questions are certainly not the focus of the film, which ultimately tells a deeply human story about the nature of abuse, the horrors of ambition and the cost of fame. But, they certainly shape its form and function.
"The haters always say, 'Tonya, tell the truth!'" says Robbie in the film's trailer, explaining the project's thesis. "There's no such thing as truth. It's bullsh*t! Everyone has their own truth!"
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