Tesla: The BRWC Review
Weaving a diversified portfolio of assured stylistic choices, Michael Almereyda’s career has undeservingly gone under the radar with mainstream audiences. Whether he’s reinventing classic Shakespeare in a modern portrait of Hamlet or infusing a 4th-wall breaking sensibility with Experimenter, the writer/director has never been afraid to pursue unique storytelling avenues. Similar to the latter film, his latest biopic Tesla unearths an inventive and well-realized portrayal of its titular subject’s overlooked history.
Tesla follows the arduous journey of Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), starting from his days working under scientific juggernaut Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLauchlan). After he trail blazes his own path with breakthroughs in electricity, Tesla sets his eyes on groundbreaking ideals while sharing a complicated relationship with JP Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson).
Where most filmmakers are partisan to Hollywood’s biopic formula, Almereyda cleverly eschews and often mocks those standard conventions. He skillfully implements a subversive edge that colors in its central figures with impact, avoiding the standard “big” moments by painting around the crevices with intimate detail (a great tracking perspective shot captures Tesla’s angst before a big speech, with Almereyda then cutting away to spare us from the overly theatrical). Whether its well-constructed 4th wall breaks or cheekily conceived frames that double as effective character-building (Tesla singing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is cinematic bliss), I greatly appreciate an auteurist director who brazenly explores new avenues of creative exploration. It helps that his craftsmanship is exceedingly impressive, with the implementation of bold colors and pastille-painted backgrounds rendering an alluring vision.
For all his showmanship, Almereyda never forgets Tesla’s central focus. The audience gets a keen sense of Tesla’s inner turmoil, seeing an idealistic pioneer whose prophetic vision of a connective future lied frustratingly out of his grasp. Ethan Hawke’s subdued performance and mousy presence unearths much of the figure’s driving forces, whether it be conquering a sense of inadequacy from his humble beginnings to growing a wide-eyed ambition after years of belittlement from his superiors. These complexions are meshed together by a quiet sensitivity that’s skillfully imbued into the character, rectifying Tesla as a tragic introvert who couldn’t see past his own obsessions (Hawke continues to prove himself as one of the industry’s standout talents). Strong supporting players like Eve Hewson, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Jim Gaffigan round out a stellar cast, with Gaffigan’s dramatic turn being a welcomed change of pace for the standout comedian.
Tesla’s bold approach isn’t without its missteps. Some of Almereyda’s stylistic choices can feel perfunctory, failing to add the depth or humor that they intend to. I also think the writer/director bit off more than he can chew from a narrative perspective, as he often dances around Tesla’s inner-circle in ways that don’t really enhance Tesla’s journey (while the relationship between he and Anne is well-constructed, his infatuation with a starlet actress goes nowhere).
Michael Almereyda’s go-for-broke vision elevates Tesla into a fresh change of pace for the biopic genre.
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