Michael Almereyda’s biopic of the mystery-shrouded inventor revels in the anachronistic appeal of cinema

Patrick Preziosi on Michael Almereyda’s ‘Tesla’ (2020)

Always staunchly affirmative of his singularity, writer-director Michael Almereyda has amassed an extensive series of off-kilter, star-powered images across his eclectic filmography that, perhaps in a different world, would healthily expand his cult year after year. 

There’s Jon Hamm as a holographic memory of an elderly woman’s late husband in Marjorie Prime (2017); Penn Badgley as Posthumus in a biker-gang take on Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (2014); Peter Fonda as a Van Helsing figure in Nadja (1994). And now, in Tesla, the director’s “newest” (this was the first script Almereyda ever wrote, which was considered strong enough as a spec to get him a Hollywood agent), we have the titular inventor (Ethan Hawke) getting into a spat with his then-employer, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), which sees the two smushing vanilla ice cream cones onto each others’ person. On the soundtrack, our unreliable narrator informs us, “This probably didn’t happen.”

Therein lies the intriguing paradoxical crux of Almareyda’s postmodern flourishes; they feel divorced from the material that houses them, but also bristles upon further inspection. Considering the talent that operates in tandem, it’s always a little perplexing that these rupturing moments don’t live on in screenshots and offhand references. But the otherwise straight-faced deportment of the films give partial explanation. This irony-free, speculation-courting formula reached an arguable apex in Almereyda’s polarising adaptation of Hamlet (2000), which repackaged Shakespeare into a parable of 21st-century commerce and surveillance, the Denmark castle swapped for a clinically pristine highrise, itself a bastion of the modernisation of the source material.

Tesla, for better and for worse, seamlessly absorbs Almereyda’s disruptive streak into the standard obligations of a biopic. Although, given the surrounding mystery of Tesla, the director has no choice but to embrace potential inaccuracies and hearsay, presenting the daughter of J.P. Morgan, Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), as a retroactive host injecting the past with unassailable tokens of the present. Armed with a projector and iMac in a recreation of Tesla’s Colorado Springs lab, Anna takes our perpetually skewed cultural history to task, as embodied in something as banal and omnipresent as Google Images. A search for Nikola Tesla yields only variations of the same three images. When Edison’s name is plugged in, one is treated to a bevvy of results, even though the man has been consistently reevaluated as nothing more than a conniving grifter year after year. 

Anne’s interrogation of the world’s most popular search engine imbues even the most academic and didactic passages of Tesla with a snaking melancholy, as Almereyda’s film—at least in its conceit—is a real-time effort to walk back the inventor from the precipice of anonymity. Amidst a slipstream of names and events, the ostensible strands of a plot begin to show themselves: namely, how the taciturn Tesla figured into the growing competition of harnessing and commodifying electrical currents.

Hawke withdraws even more than he did as Reverend Toller in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018), communicating equal amounts of untold unsureness and all-consuming commitment with just his sad eyes and furrow-cleaved brow, his features cradled by Sean Price Williams’ startlingly clean cinematography. It’s a touchingly human take on a figure who was played with overwrought dramatism by Nicholas Hoult in Alfonso Gomez-Rojan’s The Current War (2019), and even portrayed by none other than David Bowie in Christoper Nolan’s The Prestige (2006).

As succinctly telegraphed by Almereyda’s proclivity for the anachronistic, Tesla is a figure out of time, further drawn into a highly publicised climate of warring inventors and investors when his passions reside purely in the tangible results of his work. His hesitation is made palpable when the current war veers into matters of capital punishment, with men like Tesla inhabiting the unwanted role of a secondhand merchant of death (although “torture” may be a more apt term). Much is made of the case of William Kemmler, the first man to be legally executed by electric chair; the awesome power of electricity gets tangled up with morbidity when it’s revealed the switch had to be pulled multiple times before Kemmler was truly pronounced dead. Death looms in other corners as well: Anne muddies our ill will towards Edison with mention of his recently passed wife, and suggests Tesla’s lonerism could be a byproduct of his own recently deceased mother. 

Much of Tesla plays out indoors—interior spaces richly rendered with modest period detail. The drama is often confined to backroom labs (whose physical qualities bring to mind another ‘tortured scientist’ film, Powell and Pressburger’s comparatively theatrical The Small Back Room), bars and grand banquet halls, such as when Tesla meets with fellow industrialist George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The exteriors initially evince a mercurial excitement, brought forth with an archaic classicism manifest in matte paintings and rear projection. The contrast, unfortunately, grows too wide as the film continues, the oscillating visual building blocks of Tesla occurring independently of one another rather than commingling. What may be an effective tool of acknowledging the distance between creator and a quasi-unknowable subject grows leaden when dialogue takes centre stage, the worst offender being a late film exchange that although captured with the Brechtian panache of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), struggles to transcend its expository-dump writing. 

Almereyda is at his best when he’s hardest to pin down, when his pet tics—the low-grade effects, the invasion of modern-day appliances—are delivered unfussily and evaporate just as quickly as they appear. One of Tesla’s most sideswiping scenes is one of fabrication, constructing a faux-reconciliatory conversation between the inventor and Edison, while discussion of Kemmler is still heavy on the mind. Edison walks up to the bar, and checks his iPhone (a gesture that remarkably calls little attention to itself in how naturally it occurs), whilst Tesla peers into a kinetoscope. Almereyda here folds the timeline in on itself, not unlike the most generic of wormhole visual aids in popular media, when a piece of paper is folded in half with a pencil punctured through it. It’s damning and confrontational, a move that brings such modern luxuries as smartphones and film much closer to the dark, death-laden history of electricity than all would like to admit. The scene is granted a more rationally optimistic rejoinder near the end of the film, where, in a dream, Tesla performs a verse and chorus of Tears for Fears’ megahit, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. With a warbled tone and herky-jerky gait, Hawke successfully embodies the duelling self-actualisation and poignancy of the entire project, achieving a cumulative peak of believability while being anything but.

‘Tesla’ is available now in the US on-demand and in the UK on 21 September.


Director Michael Almereyda

Writer Michael Almereyda

Cinematographer Sean Price Williams

Editor Kathryn J. Schubert

Stars Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Elia A. Smith, Jim Gaffigan

Duration 102 minutes

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.