Review: Contradictions, Obsessions and Ethan Hawke’s Commitment to Character Illuminate Tesla

Shortly after the thud made by last year’s long-delayed The Current War, we get a much stronger and more nuanced take on turn-of-the-century inventors. But instead of narrowing the focus on the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, Tesla (as the title suggests) focuses on Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and the visionary Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), who spent some time working in Edison’s workshop as an inventor when he first moved to the United States from what is now Croatia. As written and directed by Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime, Experimenter), Tesla is less a conventional biopic and more of a trippy walk through portions of the man's life.

Tesla Image courtesy of IFC Films

Some of these moments are heightened, some are exaggerated, and some are idealized fantasies of things that never actually happened but in all likelihood things Tesla would have liked to have happened. As surreal as it all might sound, the end result does a remarkable job of capturing a creative genius trapped in his own head to the detriment of his personal life and even his own well being. Hawke embodies the character as a person so uncomfortable in his own skin that he retreats into his mind and the world of science. His entire life is dedicated to the understanding of electrical power and light, and it was more important to him that he get the credit he deserved than financial gain (although he only turned away from money a few ill-advised times).

The movie shows a parade of Tesla's acquaintances and potential love interests along the way, including his best friend, fellow inventor Anital Szigeti (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who eventually leaves America to return to Europe, leaving Tesla alone but weirdly unphased. Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson, playing the daughter of J.P. Morgan) seems fascinated by Tesla’s mind and standoffishness, but even her limits are tested when he consistently chooses work over her. But this doesn’t mean Tesla is oblivious to the women in his life, including the alluring Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), who seems to float in and out of his life for a spell. We should also mention Jim Gaffigan’s rather amusing turn as George Westinghouse, who makes a financial arrangement with Tesla that he can’t possibly pay out, causing issues down the line for both men.

Almereyda allows Ms. Morgan to narrate a great deal of this story, providing historical context for each of the major events in Tesla's life and work. Her words are supplemented with what are almost mini-documentaries about whatever subject is at hand, and frankly, considering so many of these feats of science are beyond my full understanding, I appreciated the Electricity for Dummies approach. The filmmaker also uses quite obviously projected backgrounds when exploring Tesla’s many travels; they always seem a bit blurry and flat, but I presume that’s by design, to let us know that the inventor didn’t pay much attention to his setting, focusing on the work in front of him instead.

There are times when Tesla feels more like a painting than a film, and it’s easy to get pulled in by the experimental and captivating visuals. Hawke is so invested in this character, he vanishes into his surly persona completely, and it’s entirely conceivable that you will come out of this movie understanding the character a great deal, even if you don’t grow to enjoy his company. Hewson provides the film its heart and soul, and it’s through her that we realize that Tesla could have lived a fully personal life if he’s been willing to cut back on work. But if he’d done that, where would the world’s technological advancements be today? It’s a story of contradictions, obsessions, and above all, science. And admittedly, it’s nice to see science win out every once in a while these days.

The film opens Friday on VOD.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.