It’s a fine line that separates astute homage from cheap facsimile. Liberally taking cues from Hitchcock and De Palma, Grand Piano is far too fun and well-crafted to come off as forgery. The premise of the thriller is preposterous: a renowned pianist with shredded nerves is threatened by an unseen sniper. If he plays a wrong note during a performance, he and/or his beautiful wife will be immediately shot. Think Phone Booth relocated from a New York street to a Chicago concert hall.
The loony concept is further complicated by even more ridiculous plot developments regarding the bad guy’s methodology and purpose, but director Eugenio Mira works the material like an expert conductor. Head-scratching moments are consumed by a straight-ahead style that doesn’t wink or hedge its narrative bets. Mira treats the material with a reverence that masks most flaws and allows us to appreciate the melody of Grand Piano, even if a few notes are off.
Pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) ends a five-year performance hiatus for a special engagement honoring his respected, recently deceased teacher. Though encouraged by his famous actress wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), Tom can’t shake the fear rooted in the disastrous performance that led to his long break – a notorious fumbling of his mentor’s “unplayable” composition. That, coupled with the fact he’ll be playing the rare piano he was trained on, has him on anxiety-overload. Shortly after taking center stage, Tom finds an ominous message on his sheet music: “Play one wrong note and you die.” More notes and taunts with a laser sight follow. Tom is provided an earpiece that allows his tormentor (John Cusack) to explain the gravity of the situation. Managing the pressure of the show and the psychotic threats, Tom must conjure supreme focus to get out of the situation alive, while also uncovering the motive behind the madness.
Wood and Mira do an extraordinary job of selling the desperate situation. There’s no use of funky angles or hand close-ups to hide the fact that Wood isn’t a world-class musician. Many times we’ll see an actor fake-tickle the ivories by shrugging their shoulders and contorting their face, but Wood has more work to do here. With the camera constantly swirling around him, over the crowd, and back again, his fingers have to be nimble enough to at least mime the classic compositions so as not to break the illusion. That’s in addition to attempting a clandestine text message with his cell phone, following the threatening laser dot, keeping tabs on his wife, and listening and reacting to the voice in his ear. It all appears seamless and adds to the tension.
While the technical virtuosity shines, the screenplay from Damien Chazelle suffers from awkward unpacking of exposition, especially as it pertains to Cusack’s gunman. It’s a tricky proposition considering he exists as a disembodied menace, but to try and fit in a subjective history connected to the piano and its former owner, a detailed reason for his demand of perfection, and more – and it’s all a bit much. The easiest way to convey this is to have him speak it explicitly, which is exactly what he does, occasionally halting the screw-tightening. That said, Cusack’s recognizable intonation works as easily understood and threatening.
Alex Winter, of Bill & Ted fame, also works as a stagehand whose overly-friendly exterior immediately pegs him as sinister. He stalks around the concert hall deliberately like a robot responding to instructions. It makes the few (bloodless) acts of violence all the more jarring, though when a throat slash cuts to the stroke of a cello bow we’re snapped right back into the thriller’s classic rhythm.
Economical by design, everything in the taught Grand Piano – including exceedingly intricate plot detail – has a purpose. The small cast of main characters stands out amid the large auditorium crowd, the bright red stage dressing implies plenty, and the built-in orchestral score adds to the stress. It’s somewhat disappointing that the crescendo of this of cat-and-mouse game includes clichéd, action-y clashes, but the ride outweighs the abrupt, mechanical end.