Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, a freewheeling take on visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, his interactions with Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, and his breakthroughs in transmitting electrical power and light. Starring: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Eli A. Smith, Josh Hamilton, Lucy Walters, Luna Jokic, Kyle MacLachlan, Dan Bittner, David Kallaway, Karl Geary and Ebon Moss-Bachrach.
‘Freewheeling’ is certainly one way to put it for a film that doesn’t seem to have a clue where it’s going, what it’s trying to say or what its ultimate goal is. It’s immediately clear within the first few minutes that this film simply doesn’t have a particular style or consistency of any sort; while random is an inadequate descriptor, it’s also extremely accurate because it’s a hard sequence of events to put into words. The opening is disappointingly weak, it dives head-first into a sappy non-committal attempt at a narrator which lacks a tangible pre-amble, only returns sporadically, and sets a negative precedent for the rest of the film from which it never recovers. It’s the type of film that while some may enjoy its unusual efforts to stray from the norm, others likely won’t find any value in it at all.
Simply put there’s a lot going on with this film but surprisingly little is actually happening. There are a number of problematic areas that plague it throughout but if you were to pick one major problem, it’s likely the writing because there’s no logical flow or progress to the story or to any piece of dialogue. Frequently throughout the film it feels as though characters talking to one another are having two different conversations and some of what they say will genuinely make you think “what are you talking about?”. There’s a moment in the film where Anne Morgan (Hewson) says to Tesla (Hawke): “You remind me of my cat, if I were to interview my cat I feel I’d have to prepare in advance to ask him any interesting questions”, if anyone could find the logical explanation of how that piece of writing ended up in the script, and if someone actually said that in real life, it would be fascinating to know but has no real place in this film, messy as it already is. That’s really the perfect example of the writing because it makes so little sense. There’s also no discernible progression other than to speed through his life and achievements as quickly as possible. Experimental films may generally fall far from the norm of any other but they usually still have some form of followable progress to their story, especially when you’re going to choose a great figure of history, but it throws all that out the window and is practically an insult to his legacy. It’s as if it can’t stay still, it shows you one moment but then gets bored of it and moves onto the next without any real connection or transition.
The visual quality of the film is a bit more complicated, while its direction is similarly scattered and unfocused, there is some value to the way it tells the story. It leans heavily on an old-fashioned, low-tech style of filming, such as using backdrops in a number of scenes, and there is a quaint quality to it but there’s so little explanation or visible reasoning for the move from physical sets that it again feels entirely random and unconnected. However, that brief glimpse of some form of style is lost amongst a mix of terrible lighting, cinematography, editing and a sincere refusal to commit to the period. These mixes of style potentially could have been more effective had there been a consistency to the way the story is being told. The amount of era inappropriate touches are quite baffling, they’re unsurprisingly inconsistent and it can’t seem to make a decision of whether they are a part of the film or not, so they are infrequently littered in the mix, including one moment of karaoke which can’t be explained further without spoilers but safe to say it’s a very mysterious inclusion that feels cheap. Those modern touches do damage its style, as liberally applied as it is, because it simply takes you further out of the story, making it feel like a visual representation of scrolling through a Wikipedia page, which is certainly not a format anyone would consciously seek.
All of the issues already mentioned make the acting fairly difficult to pin down because it’s hard to tell whether it’s genuinely bad or whether the film is just jumping around so much that there’s no real time to showcase any of it. The instinct seems to be the latter but even Hawke who has pulled off a huge variety of roles can’t hide his disinterest, the monotone cadence he gives to Tesla seems unnecessarily lachrymose for a man who was clearly dedicated, inventive, highly intelligent and motivated. However, there are still performances that simply feel poor, the usually charismatic MacLachlan feels entirely out of place, Moss-Bachrach gives a terrible Hungarian accent and Hewson can’t seem to settle on one tact for her character whether it be confident and brash or love-struck and naïve but there’s no decent development between the two to make it work because of the way it rushes through the story.
Tesla is scattered, unfocused, illogical and a downright mess, you can see that they were going for something experimental and trying to reinvent the idea of a biopic but doing so with the story of a well-known man of history was the wrong way to go. It does no justice whatsoever to his achievements, in fact it skips over them so fast that you might actually miss half of them, it seems to have no real intention to tell his story but to just use it as a vehicle to try out a number of styles, that make no sense as a whole. The film seems to have no idea what to do with this story or how to tell it, the writing is all over the place and a great deal of its choices simply have no sufficient explanation. It jumps around like it has little to no attention span and it gives you nothing to grasp onto to give you any reason to invest 102-minutes of your time.