Film Review: Grand PianoDon’t shoot the piano player.
Set in Chicago but mostly shot in Spain, Grand Piano applies the tense real-time jeopardy formula of nail-chewing suspense thrillers like Speed or Phone Booth to the unlikely dramatic setting of a classical music concert. The young Spanish director Eugenio Mira and his American screenwriter Damien Chazelle have fun paying homage to the pulpy potboilers of yesteryear. Even the protagonist’s name, Tom Selznick, nods knowingly to David O. Selznick, the legendary producer who first brought Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood.
Mira’s pacey, high-concept genre piece is more Brian De Palma than Hitchcock. But it has just enough stylistic swagger to excuse its utterly preposterous plot.
Elijah Wood stars as Selznick, a former piano prodigy returning to public performance after a five-year sabbatical triggered by a mid-show meltdown. Nerves shredded by stage fright, he arrives at the packed Chicago concert hall and settles at the priceless Bösendorfer grand piano that once belonged to his late musical mentor. But just as the piece begins, he finds a string of menacing messages scrawled on his score. Through an earpiece walkie-talkie, a gruff-voiced stranger warns Selznick that a sniper rifle is trained on both the pianist and his movie-star wife Emma (Argo’s Kerry Bishé), who is sitting in the audience. If he plays one wrong note, the voice warns, both of them will die.
So far, so demented. Grand Piano opens strongly, dropping hints that Selznick may be experiencing hallucinations, or even a ghostly visitation from his late mentor. But the second half settles into more standard thriller conventions, introducing a Machiavellian offstage villain with a disappointingly dull financial motive. The story also becomes increasingly laugh-out-loud silly as Selznick conducts long walkie-talkie negotiations in the middle of his intensely focused performance, bolting backstage and transcribing complex symphonies from memory in between musical movements.
Even more ludicrous is the villain’s dastardly plan to extract hidden treasure by musical means, easily the most insanely convoluted plot twist ever written outside a Dan Brown bestseller. But Mira and his largely Spanish crew vault over these absurd narrative knots with visual brio, framing their feverish trip into the Twilight Zone in sumptuous splashes of blood red, dynamic Steadicam flourishes, split-screen shots and crazy-paving camera angles. Think Dario Argento without the gory mania, or De Palma without the slo-mo erotic sizzle.
Commendably convincing in the piano-playing close-up shots, Wood’s anxious pixie face keeps the action grounded in quasi-naturalistic melodrama rather than schlocky excess. The late arrival of John Cusack is an energy boost but hardly a surprise, since his name figures prominently in the opening credits. Rarely seen on the big screen since his Bill and Ted heyday over 20 years ago, Alex Winter’s substantial supporting role is also nice touch. He may not actually play Twister with Death this time, but he comes pretty close. Most excellent. Together they elevate a risibly ridiculous plot into something akin to a pulp symphony.