Magazine | February 5, 2018, Issue

That Old Weird America

In this first Oscar season of the Trump era, there are two major movies that might be reasonably described as portraits of Trump country — meaning the blue-collar middle-American landscape, far from Hollywood and often far outside its understanding, where the president’s shocking electoral victories were forged. The first is I, Tonya, the real-life, world-famous story of the rise and fall of Tonya Harding, figure skating’s most (in)famous redneck. The second is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, an invented story about heartland eccentrics and their discontents, which just won a Golden Globe for best dramatic picture.

I, Tonya wasn’t nominated in the same category as Ebbing; it ended up as one of the five best comedy/musical nominees instead. Their category placements, and the better Oscar odds for Ebbing, match the general critical consensus about the two movies. I, Tonya has been praised for being enjoyable and crowd-pleasing and criticized for playing its subject’s white-trash travails too eagerly for laughs. Meanwhile, Ebbing has been praised for its moral seriousness and moving performances, and critiqued mostly for erring too much on the side of sympathy and understanding where its most authentically redneck and highly #problematic character (a bigoted sheriff’s deputy played by Sam Rockwell, who also took home a Golden Globe for the role) is concerned.

As you can imagine, I don’t think much of this critique, but I also think the consensus about the two movies is misguided. It’s true that I, Tonya is the funnier movie and Three Billboards the more self-serious. But if you asked me which one offers the more sympathetic and honest and realistic portrait of working-class white America, I would go with the wild and crazy tabloid story, not the Very Serious Drama — because the wild and crazy story tells the truth about its slice of Americana, and the drama feels rigged-up and unreal from start to finish.

Now, by “the truth,” I don’t mean to endorse the movie’s suggestion that the main character, played fiercely by Margot Robbie, was essentially unaware of the plot to kneecap Nancy Kerrigan that Harding’s ex-husband and his goonish pals cooked up. There are many voices in I, Tonya, but as the title suggests, what we’re getting is ultimately “her truth,” not the truth, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the reality were closer to what Harding’s detractors (and some evidence) suggest, and she knew about some version of the clueless, vicious plot.

No, what feels true about I, Tonya is the humanity of its characters and the warp and woof of their milieu, their language and attitudes and aspirations and self-destructive folly. I laughed at the movie, but not as often as apparently some critics did, and with the exception of the scenes featuring the genuinely ridiculous Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), Tonya’s bodyguard and a would-be criminal mastermind, I never felt as if the filmmakers were going in for simple mockery. The Harding story is absurd, yes, but also terrible and riveting, a comitragedy of squandered talent but also a depiction of how much background, upbringing, and bad relationships hold people prisoner no matter how talented they are.

Robbie is a little too angular, long-limbed, and beautiful for the part of Harding; she looks like a figure skater but not like the muscular and compact one she’s playing. But the Australian actress has a rawboned intensity that fits the character and the roughness of her world, and she has great chemistry with the two monsters in the movie — the overt one, her mother (Allison Janney), a straight-from-hell stage mom whose violence is mild compared with her verbal viciousness, and then the covert one, Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan, whose seeming good-guy meekness comes as a relief after the mom, until you realize that it’s a persona that exists to let him beat his wife and still feel good about himself, because after all how bad could such a nice guy be?

Those beatings are one of the things the movie is said to play inappropriately for laughs, I guess because we see Tonya bouncing back from them and sometimes fighting back and sometimes being self-destructive in her own right. But a little black humor in the midst of horror need not be condescending or dismissive; it can be a necessary way of showing how people cope with bad situations, how someone raised badly by a wicked mother could end up justifying staying with a guy who slams her face into the mirror. Human beings of every social class really do laugh their way through traumas, and there really is a fine line between the terrible and the ridiculous — which I, Tonya often traces with a skater’s grace.

Whereas in Three Billboards, with its bigger-name cast (Rockwell, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson) and big of-the-moment themes of rape and racism, there is an aspiration to this kind of balancing act, this mix of black comedy and tragedy — but what the movie thinks is humanism, what it imagines to be an homage to the Flannery O’Connor novels that one character is conspicuously reading, just felt stagey, mannered, and false false false throughout. The redneck Oregon in I, Tonya is recognizable and real and genuinely American; the redneck Missouri in Three Billboards feels like a version of the U.S.A. that the movie’s writer and director, the Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, dreamed up without ever venturing west of Galway.

The contrast between the two movies is a good example of the dictum that the real America is always more interesting than anything an artist could dream up. And the fact that Three Billboards is earning more laurels suggests only that critics and awards voters, like the skating judges who looked down on Tonya Harding’s aggressive flash, have let their idea of what artistic quality should look like confuse them about which story really has it.

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