Tesla: My Own Design, My Own Remorse, by David Bax
Twenty years ago, Michael Almereyda made his name directing Hamlet, with Ethan Hawke in the title role. In 2017, Almereyda released what may be his best film yet, Marjorie Prime, working for the first time with cinematographer Sean Price Williams (known for his collaborations with Alex Ross Perry and the Safdie brothers). Now, Tesla puts the whole dream team together for the first time. Hawke’s skill for wearing his characters’ interiority on the outside, Williams’ alluring penchant for dark rooms and deep, cool colors and Almereyda’s straight-faced prankishness combine for a movie unlike any other.
Tesla picks up after the Austrian Empire-born inventor has moved to New York City and found a position in the labs of Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). From there, we follow him through his lucrative partnership with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and his brief period under the patronage of J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), while checking in regularly on his friendships with Morgan’s daughter, Anne (Eve Hewson, also our narrator) and famous actor Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). A lot of what happens in Tesla is fictionalized, which the film makes no attempt to hide.
With Tesla’s intense passion for work that often includes sparks and jumping beams of electricity, he is made to bear no small resemblance to Colin Clive’s interpretation of Dr. Frankenstein. Almereyda runs with the similarity, often distorting and abstracting images into a representation of sci-fi/horror. This mode is only further emphasized by actual horrific uses of Tesla’s inventions, including the electrocution of animals and death row prisoners (in luridly dramatizing the harm unwittingly caused by scientific developments, Tesla is similar in spirit to Marjane Satrapi’s other recent scientist biopic, Radioactive).
Almereyda’s flights of fancy don’t tend solely toward the macabre, though. There’s plenty that is just plain surreal, all the more so because the director stubbornly refuses to present overtly silly things as comedy. We are first introduced to Tesla, for example, as he is awkwardly and begrudgingly rollerskating around the courtyard of a mansion.
Before he has even spoken a word, we understand that Tesla lurching to and fro on skates is an especially funny image. That’s because Hawke’s performance is so fully embodied that we can tell this is a terse, taciturn and antisocial man from his physicality and facial expressions alone. Almereyda strikes a balance with Tesla’s brooding by playing him off a gregarious, bushy-bearded Gaffigan and the always buoyant MacLachlan, who plays Edison as boyishly extroverted and petulant, even when he’s opining on the Americanness of pie.
If you’re worried that a clearly intentional Twin Peaks reference is going to break the spell of a late nineteenth century period piece, you’re really not going to like the fact that Anne Morgan repeatedly uses a MacBook. There are other such bold anachronisms but that’s the one that quickly provides Tesla with its thesis. Discussing Nicola Tesla’s legacy in terms of how many results you get in a Google image search gives Almereyda a series of large, still backdrops–Niagara Falls, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair–against which to stage scenes. It’s a simple idea; here are the stories behind the pictures. But it lends Tesla a theatricality that gets closer to the idea of this singular, almost mythical man than a traditional narrative biopic could ever hope for.