[Nightmarish Detour Review] TESLA

[Nightmarish Detour Review] TESLA
Courtesy of IFC Films
Disclaimer: In normal circumstances, we would be sitting in a theater, with popcorn in hand, getting ready for the lights to fade before the movie began. These are not normal times. Please be careful out there and please enjoy TESLA to your heart’s content whenever and however it is safe to do so.

Ethan Hawke stars as the brilliant, enigmatic inventor Nikola Tesla. TESLA tracks the strange uphill battle of the titular visionary as he attempts to create his revolutionary electrical system. Tesla’s path crosses rival inventors, well-meaning patrons, and strange budding romances with starlets and heiresses alike.

The supporting cast is a “who’s who” of great talents and highlights of your high school history class. Kyle MacLachlan plays the film’s quasi-antagonistic Thomas Edison, Jim Gaffigan is a jovial George Westinghouse, and Donnie Keshawarz and Eve Hewson play the financial titan J.P Morgan and Morgan’s young and enamored daughter respectively. TESLA is helmed by writer and director Michael Almereyda and boasts a win of the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize from its appearance at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

TESLA is a strange film to place, in terms of its effectiveness, and a lot of that stems from a very loosey-goosey narrative structure. The film is scattered and a tad listless. It meanders through the events of Tesla’s life, with no real organized approach or purpose. One could argue that this is a dramatic choice, to play up how Tesla differs from other capitalism driven figures in his life.

However, in the opinion of this critic, the softly formed narrative could use some significant tightening up. The only evidence you need of this is that the first half-hour of the film sets up a rivalry between Edison and Tesla that is so significant you expect the rest of the film to hinge on their race to the top. Yet, that thread trails off into nothingness.

In the interest of style, I can appreciate what TESLA is going for. In fact, there are a lot of elements in the film that are striking… even quite good. TESLA has a quirky, modern lightness to it that keeps the dirge of history bouncing along at a lively pace. Tesla is played as a sort of introverted rockstar, painfully shy and quiet and yet surrounded by women drawn to his intellect. Ethan Hawke is stellar in the role and honestly anchors the entire film with his sincerity and commitment to the performance.

Additionally, TESLA employs a liberal use of green screens that are much more impactful and beguiling than bloated period set pieces. It’s some of the most interesting cinematography I’ve seen this year. The film frames the man within this minimalist and innovative scope and it works! Well done.

TESLA attempts to go beyond the limiting expectations of your garden-variety historical biopic with a take that’s incredibly modern. Featuring a karaoke rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tesla, himself, to asides from our narrator contextualizing the fame of the film’s characters by measure of Google Image results, TESLA engages in a contemporary weirdness that takes some of the “edge” off of what could be a very stuffy tale. At times, it’s a lot of fun but it’s equally a distraction. More than once, in viewing the film, I couldn’t help but compare the visual choices and the narrative styling to a stage play. The film did not roll out like a good biopic should and, regrettably, its unique choices felt so out of place that it takes the viewer out of the film. Keep in mind, with a plot that wanders as much as TESLA does audience attention and focus is necessary.

TESLA is as innovative and joyously puzzling as the man at the film’s center. If nothing else, viewers will be completely won over by Ethan Hawke’s great performance and the quirky presentation of a truly fascinating story. While the entire film could benefit from a firmer hand and some tightened up editing and writing, these are hardly a nail in the coffin for TESLA. It has a spark that can’t be ignored.

TESLA is available today in select theaters and On-Demand.

Caitlin Kennedy
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