Now available to rent, GRAND PIANO is a fun — if preposterous — exercise in tension.
I want you to play the most flawless concert of your life. Got your attention?
After a five year hiatus, concert pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is returning to the stage, reluctantly facing down his demons: memories of a disastrous concert, in which Tom caught a wicked case of stage fright, and an infamously “unplayable” piece became just that. Tom is so anxious that he finds himself wishing for his plane to crash, or for his limo to catch on fire — anything to keep his highly-publicized concert from happening. Even more, he’s terrified of performing on the piano of his mentor, the same mentor who composed that terrifying solo entitled “La Cinquette.”
Tom is reassured by his movie star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé) and conductor friend Reisinger (Don McManus) that he’ll do great, that everything will be fine, that if he makes a mistake the audience won’t know — but when Tom sits down to begin the concert and turns the page on his sheet music, he finds a chilling message scrawled in red ink: “PLAY ONE WRONG NOTE AND YOU DIE.” An unseen sniper is lurking in the balcony, ready to take Tom’s head — or Emma’s — if he doesn’t play perfectly every last bar.
It’s a wildly hooky premise, dreamed up by screenwriter Damien Chazelle, whose directorial effort Whiplash (a different “musical thriller” about a drummer) was a hit at this year’s Sundance, and his script here contorts itself into twisting helixes to maintain the barest plausibility. Yet it succeeds, thanks to a terrific performance from Wood, and kinetic direction from Spaniard Eugenio Mira. Yes, we’ve seen this kind of psychological chamber play before — Phone Booth, Panic Room, and Buried come to mind — but the genre begins and ends with Alfred Hitchcock, the master of the “one-room” thriller. Mira and Chazelle treat their film as a Hitchcockian exercise, with all but the first few minutes taking place inside the concert hall, and Wood’s (literally) wide-eyed, squirmy energy at center stage.
Mira’s camera dives and swoops all over the room, whip-panning across the orchestra out into the audience, and then to Wood’s panicked face. Dutch angles, right angles, reflections — it’s all deployed here; even computer-created shots taking us inside the titular piano, with the hammers and strings pounding away like instruments of horror as Wood’s fingers fly across the keys. To Wood’s credit, you can tell how hard he’s working; the composition of the frame ensures that we know it’s really him on the ivories. And he must play and talk at the same time, via an earpiece left for him by his new enemy, who calls himself “Clem” and is voiced with gravel-scraping intensity by John Cusack.
Clem taunts Tom while he performs, and threatens him with a telltale laser sight, while expressly forbidding him to call for attention or make a scene of any kind. There’s an undercurrent of dark humor, much of it provided by the immediately sympathetic Wood, who looks the part of the weary former prodigy taking his last shot at glory. For the first half of the film it’s a clockwork game of cat-and-mouse, amplified by the baroque art direction and exuberant choreography, but as we learn about Clem’s motives, and the more the considerably less interesting side characters get involved, the production starts to creak like an old piece of fly rigging.
Almost everyone in the film save Wood has one note to play: Bishé as the glamorously supportive spouse, whose vapid friends (Tamsin Egerton and Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech) have been stashed on the orchestra level to sulk; Cusack’s henchman (Alex Winter), who seems to believe he’s playing a much hammier part than he actually is. The saving grace notes come from how Mira ratchets up the tension before the inevitably conventional ending, and how he cleverly uses the diegetic soundtrack, from fellow Spaniard Victor Reyes, to mirror the action on screen (Reyes’s show-stopping piano concerto does, in fact, seem quite unplayable, though any respectable concertgoer knows you never clap between movements.)
Grand Piano is a mixed bag, but it thankfully doesn’t overstay its welcome; the 90 minutes fly by briskly, and while it doesn’t stick the landing, there’s enough here to make it worth the recommendation. It’s the kind of ambitious experimentation we always want to see from independent filmmakers, and Mira does it with style to spare.