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Ethan Hawke as Tesla singing karaoke Image: IFC Films

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The Tesla biopic tells a strange scientist’s story with theatricality — and karaoke

Ethan Hawke stars as the infamous inventor

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In Experimenter, a 2015 biopic of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, director Michael Almereyda eschewed the conventions of the genre — and of most movies in general. Peter Sarsgaard, as Milgram, often directly addressed the camera, and some scenes, instead of taking place on different sets, were set against projected backdrops. For Tesla, a biopic of the inventor Nikola Tesla, Almereyda begins at that same unconventional spot and weaves even stranger threads together, reveling in anachronisms and atypical storytelling devices.

At first, it seems like Almereyda is planning to go down a staid route, as the film begins in the 1880s, while Tesla (Ethan Hawke) was working for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) with no Experimenter-esque strangeness in sight. But soon enough, Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) breaks the fourth wall, interrupting to say that the preceding scene never actually occurred. Then she pulls out a MacBook to walk the audience through a few Google searches on the film’s historical figures.

a woman sits behind a laptop
Eve Hewson in Tesla.
Photo: IFC Films

Those strange breaks pop up every time the audience might be getting too comfortable. Every now and then, Tesla travels via projection, interacting with just a backdrop, or Edison takes a break to look at his iPhone. To Almereyda’s credit, that shift is never jarring, and Hawke and MacLachlan take the changes in framing in stride. As Tesla, Hawke is awkward in his own time and awkward in the sequences that rely on projections in a way that makes it clear just how alienated he is, and MacLachlan lends Edison a sense of vulnerability and charm that keep him from becoming an outright villain.

Every choice Almereyda makes forces the audience to question what they’re seeing, as Tesla similarly questions the nature of everything around him. Where does all the energy in nature come from, and how can he harness it? His obsession with energy is the one constant in the film, as the world changes around him, and Almereyda occasionally jumps back and forth in time. The whole film is a little eerie, as cinematographer Sean Price Williams keeps the action in soft focus, and Almereyda’s script and staging feel theatrical. Most of the scenes take place in a single room without traveling, to the point where it’s easy to imagine, especially in combination with the projections, what Tesla would look like on the stage.

Meanwhile, the film’s “human element” is shown through how Tesla loses his own humanity. Morgan is enamored with Tesla, but though there are initially sparks, he’s consumed by his work, the long-gestating fruits of which now pepper the film in the form of modern technology. While Morgan’s affection may have been largely unrequited, Tesla’s brushes with romance — with her and with the actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) — help lend a sense of structure to otherwise-shapeless ideas. The first is that, even though real lives rarely have neatly delineated forms, biopics often force narrative arcs and story closure. The second is the difficulty of balancing artistic integrity with the need for money to keep innovating. And the people Tesla becomes closest to are those best positioned to note how poorly he connects with other people, and how clumsy he is at handling funds.

a man inspects a lightbulb
Kyle MacLachlan in Tesla.
Photo: IFC Films

Almereyda’s fondness for more experimental filmmaking helps make what could be a trite story — a man’s brilliance alienates him from the people around him — into a larger meditation on Tesla’s legacy. The inventor died penniless and in obscurity, but he’s become a cult figure. The electric-vehicle and clean-energy company Tesla (admittedly now most famous for its association with Elon Musk) is named after him. He’s become a staple of “cool” popular culture, cropping up in indie and mainstream comics, in Doctor Who and as a vampire in the sci-fi series Sanctuary. Almereyda cast indie film’s resident cool guy Ethan Hawke to play him here, and even rock god David Bowie was tapped to play him in The Prestige. And Tesla’s assertions, from Almereyda’s script to Hawke’s mouth, that his dreams are true, rather than something to work toward making true, are made manifest in this film: the wireless currents he dreamed of are real, as per the MacBook and iPhone we see onscreen.

But he was stifled in his time, a point Almereyda gets across in a scene that’s breathtaking not just for how resolutely it bucks period conventions, but also for how beautifully and concisely it communicates Tesla’s frustrations. Completely earnestly, Hawke-as-Tesla steps in front of a screen pulsing with color, grabs a microphone, and performs a karaoke song that conveys the message. It’s worth experiencing that moment without spoilers for the specific song.

The film’s experimental nature makes it tougher to swallow than a conventional biopic, but also more interesting and rewarding to engage with. Great performances help keep the whole enterprise anchored — Hawke and MacLachlan are wonderful as men caught in conflict with each other — and the anachronisms provide food for thought long after the film has ended. Tesla’s eeriness is appropriate to the man who inspired it.

Tesla is now available to buy or rent on Amazon, Vudu and other streaming services.