Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
“Everything has to be paid for. Especially money.” A line like this might sound slightly surreal if taken in isolation, but by the time we reach this epigram in Michael Almereyda’s Tesla, it makes perfect sense. True to its filmmaker’s customary approach, Tesla is a postmodern jamboree, a spiky collection of biographical tidbits and fourth-wall-busting asides, an essay masquerading as a biopic; in this setting the “especially money” line doesn’t sound like a snake eating its own tail, but like the plainest kind of wisdom.
Almereyda has been tempted into this feature-length musing by the figure of Nikola Tesla, that irresistibly strange scientist who lives in the popular imagination as both innovative genius and roadkill on the highway of progress. (And as David Bowie in The Prestige.) Played by Ethan Hawke, Tesla is a self-contained visionary, fussy and distracted; the film is presented through the lens of his years-long friendship/quasi-flirtation with Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of the mighty financier J. P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). She narrates the film, addressing the audience while Googling information on her laptop, comparing the way history has remembered Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) or George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) by how many search results their names generate.
Just so you know what kind of movie this is, at one point Tesla does karaoke. Tesla is, in short, consistent with Almereyda’s methods, which reached their apotheosis in his beguiling 2015 film Experimenter. That was another off-the-backboard portrait of a difficult scientist—in that case, Stanley Milgram, of the notorious ’60s obedience trials. Tesla feels less focused than that one, maybe because Tesla’s life sprawls across so many episodes and brainstorms. And Almereyda is so devoted to his style that he allows certain sure-fire Tesla anecdotes to pass by without fully detonating. For instance, you have to guess at what Tesla is irked about when he quits Edison’s company early in his career; the reason is an amazing story about Tesla winning a $50,000 contest, which Edison then allegedly reneged on because he claimed the prize offer was a joke (with the—again alleged—excuse that Tesla didn’t understand American humor).
You get more conventional scenes of Tesla’s life in the 2019 film The Current War, with Nicholas Hoult as Tesla and Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison. Full of muttonchops and science talk, that film does a surprisingly lively job of bringing a scientific era to light. But it doesn’t have anything as memorable as Tesla’s scene of Westinghouse sitting Tesla down in a lavish room for a very serious talk, the outcome of which will affect U.S. history and the protagonist’s future ability to support himself, whereupon Tesla listens carefully to the proposition and then blurts out a request to move the meeting to somewhere less dusty.
Hawke is adept at sketching this genius-kook (we learn that Tesla has “an unfavorable reaction to pearls,” which affects his closeness to Miss Morgan). It’s a little like his performance as Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue—a superb turn in an okay movie—in the way it refuses to invite the audience to like the character. Because of Baker’s expansive musical ability, that performance was larger, more revelatory. Tesla remains pretty opaque.
But Almereyda skillfully uses this figure as a way to explore commerce and creativity. There’s something amusing or insightful in every scene, but, as in Experimenter, Almereyda pokes at the audience’s need to identify with characters and stories, forcing us to question those comforting conventions of movie watching. There’s a scene in which Edison meets with Tesla in a bar, ordering up some pie (MacLachlan goes at it with enough relish to convince you the Twin Peaks echo is surely intentional), and the two men come to a satisfactory rapprochement. They even take a look at Edison’s Kinetoscope, one of the earliest motion picture devices, an intriguing touch; perhaps we will recall that Edison wasn’t just one of cinema’s midwives, he was also the founder of the movie business as a ruthless commercial enterprise. It’s a cool moment, except the movie immediately informs you that this scene never happened, it’s complete fiction. We’d like it to be true, but this movie isn’t about what we would like or want. It’s on the side of Tesla, not Edison.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.