Directed by Eugenio Mira. Starring Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Alex Winter, Tamsin Egerton, Dee Wallace, Don McManus. (2014, R, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 7, 2014
Like the notoriously difficult musical composition that serves as its elegantly anxious heartbeat, Grand Piano is a manic feast for the senses. Fantastic Fest favorite Eugenio Mira summons visual and aural leitmotifs that recall everyone from Dario Argento and Brian De Palma to Alfred Hitchcock and Stravinsky’s riotous debut of The Rite of Spring. The film’s title is more than apt; everything about the film is grand – Unax Mendía’s snaking cinematography, Javier Alvariño’s sumptuous production design, and, above all, Víctor Reyes’ thrilling score. Nearly the entire film takes place within a single, theatrical setting, but Mira, working from Damien Chazelle’s equally streamlined cat-and-mouse screenplay, makes this relatively small film seem, indeed, grand.
Wood plays the high-strung, virtuoso pianist Tom Selznick who, five years prior to the events in this film, went through a meltdown onstage while attempting an “impossible to play” composition by his late mentor. Returning to the keys for a concert honoring said mentor, Selznick is already jittery without the added pressure brought on by the presence of his beloved, superstar actress wife (Bishé), whose own fame threatens to overshadow his return from self-imposed exile. It’s only when he takes his place on the stage that he realizes – via crimson-scrawled directives hidden within his score – that there’s a laser-scoped assassin somewhere in the audience. This time Selznick is playing for both his life and that of his wife.
Grand Piano’s plot may sound familiar (it recalls the 2002 thriller Phone Booth and Dario Argento’s Opera, for starters), but Mira’s protagonist holds it together seamlessly, up to a point. The timbre and tone is one of relentless suspense, and Wood’s slight frame and intense gaze are perfectly suited to the role. It’s only in the final third of the film that things begin to fall apart, literally, as the unseen assailant’s plans go awry and Selznick is loosed from the keyboard to go hand-to-hand amid the catwalks and rigging high above the stage.
There are moments of spellbinding, inventive beauty, too, as when Selznick’s wife serenades her husband (and the packed house) with a melancholy rendition of “Motherless Child,” thus giving the pianist time to seek out his antagonist. And, again, Unax Mendía, returning from Mira’s 2010 film Agnosia, whips the camera into a frenzy – mirroring the mounting suspense hanging like a pall over the concert house. That it all ends on a somewhat flat, false note is less a failure of the filmmakers than it is a testament to a certain amount of overzealousness in the screenplay – which, of course, echoes the nail-gnawing tension unfolding onscreen. Bravo!