Grand Piano (2013) / Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some language
Running Time: 90 min.
Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishe, Don McManus, Alex Winter, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, Dee Wallace
Director: Eugenio Mira
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Review published February 26, 2014
Spanish director Eugenio Mira (Agnosia, The Birthday) evokes the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock with Grand Piano, a stylish, high-concept suspense flick that takes a simple, ludicrous premise and builds a good deal of tension and intrigue, even if it is one of the more farfetched thrillers out there since the likes of Speed, Phone Booth, and Cellular, as well as the more recent example, Getaway.
Elijah Wood (9, Happy Feet) stars as Tom Selznick, a world-class classical pianist who has not been able to play publicly for the past five years after struggling to perform a concert piece composed by his late, great mentor, Patrick Godureaux, deemed one of the most difficult, perhaps impossible, to master. It is the day of his big comeback, as he's set to headline a huge, highly publicized concert in front of a packed Chicago theater that features, among others, his superstar actress wife, Emma (Bishe, Argo). As anxiety-ridden with stage fright as Selznick already is feeling, things take a turn for the worse when he realizes that his sheet music is filled with messages threatening his life, or that of his wife, should he play even one wrong note. Disbelief dissipates when he sees the tell-tale red glow of a sniper rifle's laser light pointed right at him, as the lunatic communicates through a microphone reiterating his threats. Worst of all, to suvive, he's going to have to perfectly perform the piece that practically ruined his career.
Contrivances abound, as does the sheer amount of implausibility, but the taut sense of suspense is able to be maintained throughout, thanks to the cunning camerawork of Mira and cinematographer Unax Mendia (No Rest for the Wicked, BackWoods), as well as the perfectly-orchestrated, classical music score. The reason why the sniper needs Selznick to perform his piece with precision has something to do with getting the combination just right in a scheme that is worth a large fortune. But giving away too many details will not only ruin the experience to potential viewers, even though the motive isn't really the thrust of the story. This one's all about the aesthetic thrills. Like many thrillers, the less explained, the better it is, and once the Cusack is finally revealed to us as more than a voice, the level of preposterous events in Damien Chazelle's (Whiplash, The Last Exorcism Part II) screenplay only escalate to absurd proportions. Nevertheless, it's hard to stop watching the screen even when we're laughing at its determined inanity.
Elijah Wood delivers a fine performance as Selznick, in a role that's not particularly deep, but does require a good deal of facial expression to pull off, in addition to spending weeks nailing the hand and finger movements required to effectively play one of the world's greatest performers, though a double was used for some of the trickier passages. The supporting cast isn't as strong, but John Cusack (The Butler, Hot Tub Time Machine) offers a welcome familiarity, going against the usual grain of his nice-guy personality, though he doesn't show his face until well into the film. It is also nice to see Bill and Ted's Alex Winter still managing to get some decent work as the theater house's head of security. Kerry Bishe looks the part of a popular Hollywood actress, though there is an unusual scene with her later singing an obviously lip-synched and studio-enhanced impromptu number from her theater house balcony seat.
But the film isn't an actor's showcase. This is one to show off the skill of director Mira, who shows he could be a great virtuoso director in the vein of a student of Hitchcock, a la early Brian De Palma, should he be handed a better script to build around in the future. At 90 minutes (80, if you discount the slow-crawling end credits), it moves along with the requisite zip and determination to keep disbelief mostly at bay. Even if it is, like a piano, mostly empty inside, it's a visual and aural delight.
©2014 Vince Leo