WARNING: Mild Spoilers Ahead. Before I delve into my review for IFC film’s latest “Tesla," I want to make a slight disclosure. The “Current War” period (the battle of the 19th century between Edison and Westinghouse on who’s electric system would power the U.S.) is hands down one of my absolute favorite pieces of history ever. Going into Ethan Hawke’s latest I went in with incredibly high expectations. Its story follows Nikola Tesla and his battle with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), possible partnership with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and his possible romance with J.P Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson). While that may sound like your run of the mill premise for a historical film, trust me when I say this is anything but normal. In fact, its oddities are some of the elements I found to be the most appealing.
A lot of my praise for the film comes from director Michael Almereyda and some of his unique choices behind the camera. What struck me was how he plays with events that did happen and those that might’ve happened in this story. A particularly funny scene early on involving ice cream shows just how loose of a biopic this actually is. Throughout its 102-minute runtime, it feels as if Almereyda is doing everything he can to push the rules of what this genre can be. It feels as if the film is designed to have varying opinions since it's narratively unpredictable. That unpredictability couldn’t be possible without this ensemble.
Hawke delivers a quite subtle and understated performance of this genius that’s constantly compelling. Arguably, it could be said that his performance is the most realistic compared to some of the other supporting players. With a supporting ensemble like this, that essentially works as a counter-weight to Hawke’s subtlety. It’s a balancing act that relies on actors selling the film’s unique style choices. Much like the particular scene mentioned earlier involving ice cream, there is a level of cerebralism throughout that’s quite appealing. Thanks to these types of narrative choices, there’s an unpredictability that I found to be quite engaging. Being able to have a film that defies its own rules made me hooked almost instantly.
Ever since it’s debut at the Sundance film festival in January of this year, I had heard comparisons to Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” (which was recently canceled). Much like that show, it thrives on how it doesn’t tell this story in the way we expect. I can always admire a film that doesn’t play by the rules audiences have come to expect. In the case of a movie like “Tesla," it’s so admirable that those behind and in front of the camera want to do their own thing. That element of unpredictability is something that made this film one of my own personal favorites of 2020 thus far. If a sequence of Tesla singing “Everybody Wants to Rule The World," then I just don’t know what will. It’s choices like these and overall narrative flow will most definitely not be to everyone’s liking. Though “Tesla” is a film that can surprise you if you’re willing to go with its unique narrative choices.