While many thriller movies try to play audiences like piano, “Grand Piano” tries to play not only its audiences but also a real piano at the center of its plot. Its premise is preposterous to say the least, but this is a tense thriller with style and gusto flourishing within its limited space, and I enjoyed it for that in spite of its relatively unsatisfying ending. Once it begins its performance, it grabs us with mounting suspense to tighten our heartstrings, and we willingly go along with it as long as it plays us well.
The piano in question belongs to a respected composer who was the mentor of Tom Selznick(Elijah Wood), a wunderkind pianist who has never played in public since he suffered a bout of mental breakdown on the stage. At that time, Selznick was playing his teacher’s infamous concerto “La Cinquette”, which was nicknamed “the unplayable piece” because it requires tremendous techniques to its player like, say, Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto No. 3. It is said that only very few talented pianists in the world can play it perfectly without missing a note, and Selznick was one of them until that unfortunate incident happened five years ago.
Now, with the caring help of his actress wife Emma(Kerry Bishé), he is about to make a comeback at the concert hall in Chicago, but the circumstance is not that ideal, and he is already nervous about the possibility of another public disgrace even before his plane lands at the airport. As soon as he gets off the plane, he has to go to the concert hall immediately while changing his clothes in the limousine, and he also has to endure a brief radio interview which painfully reminds him of his last concert performance. His mentor died a year ago, but his presence is felt around the concert hall through his big photo in the poster -and his beloved grand piano sent from Switzerland to be played for this special occasion.
Still feeling pressured despite the support from the people around him, Selznick manages to climb onto the stage without having stage fright, and everything seems to be going well as he plays the first piece for the concert, but he suddenly finds himself in a serious trouble. In the middle of the performance, he comes across an ominous message written in bright red on his sheet music: “Play one wrong note and you die.”
As I think more about it, this is not a very practical warning to a pianist who is very, very nervous from the beginning, but Selznick manages to hold himself while not drawing any particular attention from his audiences as demanded, and he gradually realizes how dangerous this threat is as talking with some mysterious guy through an earpiece given to him. Hiding somewhere inside the building, this guy is ready to shoot Selznick with his rifle if Selznick does not follow his demand, and Selznick is driven into more panic because his dear wife can also be killed if he is not careful about his demeanor as well as his performance.
The movie stays inside the concert hall building during most of its short running time, and the director Eugenio Mira keeps the tension being accumulated while bringing some nice stylish touches to his film. With the orchestra vigorously performing on the stage, the camera sometimes makes sweeping movement as looking around the fabulous interiors of the concert hall, and the music on the soundtrack is as well-played as you can expect from a first-rate symphony concert. There is also a smooth split screen sequence reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s thriller films, and I like the way Mira effortlessly initiates this sequence without distracting our attention.
Such a thriller movie like this always need a good performance we can hold onto, and Elijah Wood does a solid job as required as the hero struggling to survive a deadly circumstance forced upon him. Looking believable during the performance scenes thanks to his rigorous preparation before the shooting, Wood is terrific to watch as his character continues to sweat and tremble more and more under increasing mental pressure. While the other actors around Wood are mostly stuck with thankless roles, John Cusack has a small fun with his villain character; taunting and goading Wood’s character like a cat playing with a mouse, Cusack imbues vicious menace into his voice performance, and that is another crucial element for the suspense in the film.
As I said earlier, the movie is not entirely without flaws. As approaching to its third act, the movie begins to lose its tension after a hidden motive is eventually revealed, and it also goes a little too long after the climactic moment in which Selznick has no choice but to play “La Cinquette”. Its last scene is a letdown compared to the other parts, and you may notice several implausible things in Damien Chazelle’ screenplay as you look back on it.
Anyway, the movie is a solid thriller good enough to compensate for its visible weaknesses which could be far more glaring if it were not for the filmmakers’ skill and passion put behind the film. The dynamic interactions between Wood and Cusack are tightly handled on the screen to captivate our attention from the beginning to the end, and the composer Victor Reyes provides a concerto piece which is played as dramatically and thrillingly as the Storm Cloud Cantata in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much”(1934) and its 1956 remake version(and it really sounds like a very difficult piece which would overwhelm any talented pianist). The movie is not a perfect performance, but it is an entertaining one which deserves some applause in the end.