Biopics are notorious for following a very distinct formula. These films are often designed to play to awards voters, tugging at their heartstrings with a shallow and inspirational story in the hopes of netting the lead performer an Oscar. While Stephen Hawking and Freddie Mercury don't have much in common, the films that told their stories feel frustratingly similar, and the actors playing them both ended up with awards. The biopic has become its own genre at this point, simply because most are cookie-cutter copies of one another. So when one comes along that completely throws the blueprint out of the window, it's hard not to give it real attention.
Tesla, from writer/director Michael Almereyda, is one of the strangest examples of the genre in recent memory. This film refuses to play by the rules and flips the very idea of a biographical drama on its head. Structure and time don't exist in the world Almereyda builds, and we're left with nothing but Nikola Tesla.
Ethan Hawke stars as titular scientist, the iconic inventor who has had no shortage of appearances in film and television over the years. This film follows Tesla during the highs and lows of his career, especially in regards to his rivalry with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). The entire tale is narrated by J.P. Morgan's daughter, Anne (Eve Hewson), who speaks directly to the audience from a room filled with 21st-century technology.
Those scenes with Anne are just a few of the instances throughout Tesla that merge modern tech with an industrial world. At one point, Edison takes an iPhone out of his pocket while sitting at a bar, and it's never brought up again. It may seem off-putting or odd, but Almereyda makes it clear as the film goes on that we're not meant to be seeing a historically accurate version of the world. What we're seeing in many of those instances is a world that Tesla had envisioned.
Bringing imagination to the forefront both helps and hinders Tesla a bit. The film is about an inventor, after all, so setting the stage with an inventive mind is a unique and admirable direction. On the flip-side, the narrative itself just becomes hard to follow on multiple occasions. Tesla ends up being a study of a man and not his story, so that's okay, but it makes keeping up somewhat of a chore.
As always, Hawke brings everything he's got to his role and brings Tesla to life with tenacity and humility. This is a troubled man with a lot on his mind and ambition to spare. In other words, he's the kind of character that Hawke has made a career out of playing. His performance is great and not at all surprising. What does come as a surprise, however, is Jim Gaffigan's turn as George Westinghouse. Gaffigan is known for his stand-up comedy, but he's one of the few people I've ever witnessed steal a scene from Ethan Hawke. Get that man more dramatic roles, on the double.
There are wonderful performances all throughout Tesla, all of which help anchor the film when it starts to lose itself within its own imagination. Like the man, the movie has bigger ideas than it's capable of achieving, opting for both swings and misses rather than playing it safe. For better or worse, Tesla is truly one of a kind.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Tesla will be available to purchase on VOD platforms beginning August 21st.