Ethan Hawke Channels the Wandering Mind of a Great Inventor in Dreamlike ‘Tesla’

What’s the point of making a film about an inventor if you do not try for creativity? “Tesla” attempts to chronicle the life and essence of Nikola Tesla, combining standard period drama touches with some avant-garde experimentation. It is fascinating above anything else, imagining Tesla as the archetype genius who has a brilliant mind, but terrible social skills. Ethan Hawke captures this spacy personality so well, with that constant sense of a man whose mind is always somewhere else that it shines above some other odd choices. 

Told in a stage-like style, the movie is narrated by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of money powerhouse J.P. Morgan. Anne is here to guide us through the various stages of Tesla’s career, beginning in the late 19th century when he works for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). Already famous for his groundbreaking work on electricity, Edison is not too amused by Tesla’s theories on alternating currents. The two men soon part ways, with Tesla insisting Edison owes him money for his work. But Edison is a proud egomaniac, and Tesla is forced to work his way back up from zero. As he finds new patrons and his own inventions take off, Tesla grows in stature as an inventor, but also as a rival to Edison. Yet as he rises, Tesla’s greatest threat may not be his former employer, but his own dreams and personality.

Some early reviews of “Tesla” have attempted to dismiss the film as a rather sleepy affair. They seem to miss the very mood director Michael Almereyda attempts to conjure. Tesla has always been a figure cloaked in an almost sci-fi, otherworldly fascination because of the nature of his ideas. He was famously played by David Bowie in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” with a style akin to an eloquent wizard. Almereyda’s approach is elegant and dreamlike, with editing that seems to flow rather than cut. His Tesla is a man cut down to human stature, while still acknowledging the unique gifts of his talent. Ethan Hawke’s performance is crucial because it captures how a man like Tesla operates. Instead of fully romanticizing an icon, Hawke conveys a man who is eternally lost in his daydreams, while complaining that he spends every waking moment thinking. This reality makes Tesla a hard man to live with or approach. Driven by his ideas, determined to invent new ways of harnessing and using power, Tesla is a near social disaster. A tycoon like J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) is turned on by Tesla’s ideas, but turned off by his cold demeanor. A terrible businessman, Tesla constantly needs the aid of those more attuned to the ways of the world, in order to contribute to it. When another rich patron suggests Tesla rip up his contract in order to save money for the company and thus his project, the inventor promptly does so (as Anne’s voice over observes a wiser man would have called a lawyer). He is the complete opposite of Edison, well played by Kyle MacLachlan as a cutthroat both sharp and shrewd, with a hint of vindictiveness.

To provide a more alluring aesthetic to a film about a version of Tesla as man eternally inside his own head, Almereyda goes for a post-modern arthouse style that either works or feels out of place. Anne, in 19th century period clothing, will open a laptop and compare just how many more Wikipedia entries Edison has in comparison to Tesla. When the famous French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) makes her entrance as a character, techno music blares over the soundtrack, giving the moment a flashy, celebrity ambiance. “Tesla” also turns out to be the film that would feature Ethan Hawke doing a karaoke performance of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Yes, indeed, this does happen. While these moments are inventive, some feel misplaced only because they suddenly break with the rest of the film’s own tone. If you’re going to do period-jumping, soundtrack crossover tricks, it should be the established spirit of the movie from beginning to end. Even the atmospheric music by John Paesano switches from a dreamy piano to sudden, electro waves. 

Almereyda’s flourishes, when they work, do add extra energy to the story of a distant man. At parties it takes one of Tesla’s friends to explain to others his Romanian roots, his migration to the U.S., which Tesla compliments with a brisk description of cannibalism. When one of his grand experiments knocks out the power of an entire town, he coldly explains to a local how his manipulation of current works, before nonchalant offering to pay for a new power generator. By the third act Tesla remains fascinating in his proposals about currents and how they can change the world, yet so lost is he in his own world that there’s also a hint of ego turning into craze. Hawke’s best moments come near the end, when Tesla is reduced to nearly begging for more funds, while convincing himself he might be catching possible transmissions from Mars.

“Tesla” has flashes of elegance, some offbeat stylistic touches, but still intrigues with the story of a figure still undergoing a cultural revival. More than science, the real theme here is the nature of the inventor. Tesla can now be ranked as a great man, this film argues he was as complicated as everyone else, frustratingly so because he could be such a closed book.

Tesla” releases August 21 on VOD.