When it comes to thrillers, it seems the days of Hitchcockian suspense are behind us; gone in favor of intricate storylines and elaborate action sequences. I love a flashy explosions as much as the next guy, but that’s rarely as satisfying as a good, old-fashion slow burner. Grand Piano, a Spanish production directed by Eugenio Mira, comfortably fits in with the thrillers of yesteryear.
Grand Piano stars Elijah Wood as Tom Selznick, one of the world’s greatest living pianists. He took a hiatus from the stage following an infamous blunder during a performances. Five years later, Tom returns to the spotlight to perform on his recently-deceased mentor’s treasured piano in his honor.
Although the infamous flub still weighs heavily on his mind, Tom seems confident when he takes center stage. The first several bars go off without a hitch, but when Tom turns the page in his sheet music, he finds a message scrawled on the page: “Play one wrong note and you die.” Tom brushes it off as a prank, casually carrying on without missing a note. He continues to find menacing notes until he sees the laser scope of a gun on his hand. That threatening, red dot follows Tom’s every precise move. In the middle of the biggest performance of his life, Tom is instructed to go backstage, where he retrieves an earpiece.
The voice on the other end belongs to Clem (John Cusack), who assures Tom that the threat is very serious. If Tom plays a wrong note, the man will kill him. If he attempts to call for help, the man will kill Tom’s wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé, Red State), who is in the audience. He challenges Tom to perform the most flawless concert of his life, including the “unplayable piece,” “La Cinquette.” With both his and his wife’s lives on the line, Tom has no choice but to do as the man says.
Grand Piano’s plot is more than a little far-fetched, even before the bizarre reason for the madness is revealed about two-thirds of the way through the picture, but the material is handled with such finesse that it’s easy to forgive its flaws. The script, written by The Last Exorcism Part II’s Damien Chazelle, would be unwatchable rubbish in the hands of lesser filmmakers and actors, but Mira – a musician himself – executes it eloquently. Between the music, the performance and the in-ear dialogue, the picture is expertly choreographed.
Wood, of course, knocked it out of the park with the Lord of the Rings franchise, but his recent turn to modestly-budgeted, independently-produced horror cinema has been even more impressive, if you ask me. Coming off his lauded role in Maniac, Wood proves that he’s equally effective on the other side of the psychopathic coin. Literally personifying stage fright, Cusack’s role is powerful despite his limited screen time. Alex Winter (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) pops up as Cusack’s character’s assistant.
Grand Piano is in the same vein as horror-tinged thrillers such as Frozen, Buried, Phone Booth and Devil. Although the film takes place in a grand concert hall and is therefore less claustrophobic, it remains confined to one location with few characters. Executed in the spirit of Hitchcock, Grand Piano hits all the right notes – offering suspense, creativity, engagement and a dash of panache without relying on ostentatious high concepts.