Before the lights went down at the world premiere of “Tesla,” writer-director Michael Almereyda said that his unconventional biopic of the famously enigmatic futurist was inspired by “Derek Jarman, Henry James, and certain episodes of ‘Drunk History.’” He wasn’t kidding. What starts as an earnest (if lyrical) profile of the man who invented Elon Musk soon explodes into something more appropriately postmodern when Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) get into a heated ice cream fight, and a woman’s voice comes over the soundtrack to inform us that it probably didn’t happen this way.
The voice belongs to Eve Hewson, playing J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne with the same contemporary brio she brought to “The Knick,” and we cut to find her sitting at the Macbook Pro that she’ll be using as a reference guide and slide projector to lead us through the rest of a film that’s shaped like the concentric circles that so obsessed its subject. She speaks to the audience from the future that Tesla would help to create; she tells us that you can only find four pictures of Tesla on the internet, and that typing Edison’s name into Google comes back with twice as many results. Anne — whose Wikipedia page is only a few paragraphs long — pokes fun at her unrequited crush, and suggests that history may have remembered him better had he recognized her value as a business partner. “Is it better to be validated or to be loved?” she asks later, knowing full well that Tesla was hardly capable of being either in his own time.
Working from a script that he first wrote in 1983 (and has obviously updated since), “Hamlet” director Almereyda reunites with his favorite leading man for a scientist biopic so anachronistic and unmoored that it makes his “Experimenter” seem like a Ken Burns documentary by comparison. “Tesla” adheres to the same kind of emotional logic as that 2015 effort, likewise retrofitting a playful structure over the life of a decidedly unplayful man.
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But this narrow slipstream of a movie has just as much in common with something like Paul Schrader’s kaleidoscopic “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” which harmonized fact with fiction in order to sublimate the Japanese writer into his work, or even Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flowers of Shanghai,” which slurred along in a similarly hermetic opium haze. “Tesla” doesn’t take things to quite the same extreme — its flourishes are more aesthetic than narrative, its melancholic buzz is cut with moments of electric innovation, and its form never quite arrives at a coherent function — but Almereyda’s film still kindles Tesla’s ever-growing legend in a way that reflects his unique genius. It hums through and above the trenches of the current war to find that everybody wants to rule the world, but nobody agrees what that would entail.
The first thing we understand about Hawke’s sullen and soft-spoken Tesla is that, even before he starts working for Edison at the end of the 19th century, he’s already a kind of cyborg; equal parts man and machine (watching that ratio change will become the only reliable way of tracking where you are in this story). Not literally, of course, but in the way he believed that “every living being is an engine geared to the wheelwork of the universe.” Hawke’s Tesla reminds us that humans are each supplied with a finite amount of energy, and he doesn’t want to spend his on talking. The closest we ever get to understanding how he ticks is in the revelation that his imagination first sparked when he stroked the back of his childhood cat and saw an electric charge run along its fur. “Is nature a gigantic cat?” He asks, “And if he so, who strokes its back?”
So far as Almereyda is concerned, Tesla devoted his entire life to that question — to becoming its answer — and was curious about little else. Unlike Edison, he never wondered “how do I become rich?” Unlike George Westinghouse (a bearded and boisterous Jim Gaffigan), he never wondered “how do I become a brand?” And unlike Anne Morgan, he never wondered “how do I share my life with another soul?” In other words, it’s a good thing Almereyda’s movie has a much better sense of humor than its namesake, especially since it uses that silliness to blast a hole between past and present so that audiences come to appreciate that Tesla bequeathed the modern world a lot more than a great David Bowie performance and the name of an unaffordable car.
Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) sweeps into this story with a blast of contemporary electro music and a tail of flashbulb-snapping paparazzi that help contextualize her fame. Edison makes a semi-explicit and truly hilarious reference to “Twin Peaks: The Return” (MacLachlan is reliably fantastic as the voracious godhead of General Electric). And the movie ends with a sequence that’s too wonderfully goofy to spoil here. Let’s just say that anyone who liked the “Hamlet” scene in which Hawke delivered the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in a Blockbuster Video is going to love the “Tesla” scene in which Hawke does a [redacted] version of [redacted].
In a movie that takes so many fun liberties, it almost seems like a missed opportunity that Almereyda doesn’t let Tesla invent a sinister cloning device in the Colorado mountains. That certainly would have fit with the Brechtian approach of a film that constantly directs attention to its own artifice in more ways than this review has already mentioned; painted backdrops and obvious miniatures also contribute to the sense of deconstructed history, while Sean Price Williams’ cinematography makes it seem as if the whole film is being projected against the glowing embers of a calm fire.
Coiling around its subject’s life in an effort to distill the energy that powered its subject for almost 100 years — an impossible task that Tesla himself might liken to “getting the ocean to sit for a portrait” — “Tesla” underlines the irony that its namesake outlived all of his contemporaries who were desperate for immortality. If Almereyda fails to pierce the inventor’s skin and expose his circuity, his gauzy film nevertheless has fun exploring the idea that we’re all wired differently. When Anne asks Tesla what he will do when all of his dreams come true, the inventor responds: “All of my dreams are true.” To watch this movie is to see them realized.
“Tesla” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.