Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director: Eugenio Mira
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Producer: Adrian Guerra, Rodrigo Cortes
Stars: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishe, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, Don McManus, Alex Winter
With his wife in the crosshairs of a mysterious sniper, a concert pianist is forced to deliver a flawless performance.
Meticulously precise, tightly wound, and intensely focused are just a few phrases aptly fitting for a sniper, a concert pianist, and “Grand Piano,” a cinematic thriller that pits the two fiercely determined professionals against one another. Hitchcockian is one more buzzword to be bandied about most when describing the film. This is because “Grand Piano” harkens back to a classic era of suspense when tension was built from storytelling instead of from gunfire, chases, and CGI noise.
Elijah Wood believably plays Tom Selznick, a fallen from limelight concert pianist readying to open the curtain on his comeback performance. The key descriptor in that sentence is “believably.” Selling a musical novice actor as an orchestra-caliber virtuoso is usually an exercise in creative editing that involves mismatched hands in closeups and conspicuously obscured ones in long shots. Whatever training Wood underwent to pull off looking like a boy wonder ivory-tickler, it worked. The camera is free to make artful decisions about composition without worrying overmuch about hiding technical seams that stitch the actor to the character.
It is a big boon too, as becoming enveloped by the story is far easier when a distracted brain is not caught up processing the little details lifting the premise off the ground. Especially since “Grand Piano” requires so much of that suspension of disbelief to be focused elsewhere.
Tom sits down to perform at his mentor’s custom Bosendorfer and finds himself in the center of a rifle’s crosshairs with its triggerman communicating threats via preplanned messages in the sheet music. The instructions are simple. Play perfectly or die. Alert anyone and lovely wife Emma also dies in her balcony box seat. And one more thing. Play the impossible composition that forced an early retirement without missing a single note, or die.
See, Tom’s brilliant mentor Patrick Godureaux died leaving behind a hidden fortune. Of course, the key to that fortune is hidden in the piano and the only way to unlock it is with a deviously difficult series of precisely timed piano keystrokes. Tom has the only hands nimble enough to play that piece, although the last time he tried was a disastrous failure. Now an extortionist has given Tom new motivation to strive for greatness on a stage that was already a pressure cooker before having a gun pointed at his head.
Sure, smashing open the piano and taking the key would be much easier than spending three years planning a complicated heist like this. It is an impossible concept, which is just the first piece of what makes “Grand Piano” such a perfect throwback to seventies-styled nailbiters where flair counted for more than uncompromising realism.
“Grand Piano” is a brisk 80 minutes, the majority of which is spent with a protagonist sitting down and an antagonist heard but not seen. The setting calls to mind “Phone Booth” or “Rear Window” via drama stemming from a mind racing to keep up with the speeding train of Tom’s feverishly paced thoughts. Like Jimmy Stewart and Colin Farrell’s characters in those films, Tom is cuffed in place with limited options. There is endless wonderment in what he will do next, what the sniper will ask of him, and what must be going through the heads of an audience watching a pianist mumble to himself and bolt from the stage at seemingly random intervals.
As expected of a movie that takes place during a piano concerto, the musical score is right on target with the rest of the film’s tone. The piano and orchestral compositions taking place on stage are impossibly timed to the peaks and valleys of the action onscreen in the same way that the most climactic moments of the TV series “24” conveniently happened at 59 minutes into each real-time hour.
Cap off the climax with a catwalk showdown and an aftermath bit where Tom wears a space blanket in a manner resembling a gold lame Liberace vest, and there is just enough self-awareness taking place to justify the beats that border on ludicrous. “Grand Piano” is the type of impossibly preposterous thriller setup that can only exist in the movies, but then, that is exactly the type of story that movies are meant for telling.
Review Score: 85