Fantastic Fest 2013: Eugenio Mira's Taut Isolated Thriller 'Grand Piano'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 25, 2013
Single-location thrillers have been the craze ever since John McClane decided to visit LA, and, to an extent, the sub-genre has gone in some ridiculous directions. "Die Hard in a…" movies continue to thrive with the locations going from high-rise building to places like a phone booth or a city bus. To that end, Grand Piano is more Phone Booth than Die Hard, but the conceit is still there. A famous concert pianist must perform perfectly else a sniper will take him out. Simple enough, and the thriller at work here is flimsy and even cheesy at times, but that doesn't stop it from being a cool, taut, little thriller backed by a smattering of solid performances. Grand Piano doesn't refresh the sub-genre, but this entry never falls to insulting it.
That master of the grand piano is Elijah Wood playing Tom Selznick, a pianist who, five years earlier, locked up with stage fright while he was performing his teacher's most famous - and mostly impossible - piece. Now, on the night of his return, he'll have to do much better than previously. On the second page of his sheet music is a dire threat. A sniper (John Cusack) is in the hall watching the performance, and absolute perfection is the only thing stopping this killer from putting a bullet through the pianist's head.
Grand Piano was directed by Eugenio Mira, but among the names of producers is Rodrigo Cortés, the man responsible for another single-location thriller, Buried. Mira's handling of the material here seems influenced by Cortés being involved, and that's only for the most complementary of reasons. While the story in Grand Piano,courtesy of Damien Chazelle, is simple and the locations are scarce, Mira moves the camera around the hall, down the corridors, and over and above the stage, giving us interesting angles of everything at play here. His usage of split screens and deep focus makes Grand Piano a nice homage to the films of Brian DePalma, though its intentions may have been more aimed at Hitchcock. DePalma is just fine, though, as Snake Eyes - the film Grand Piano most resembles in terms of tone - is an underappreciated thriller.
The back-and-forth between the cat and the mouse is there to drive the story forward and reveal the sniper's motivations. Wood's pianist is also the master of multi-tasking, as his attempts to call for help from the piano bench call for some incredible creativity. They might stretch the logic of it all, but the execution is so intense and energetically played that it's easy to look past the reality. It's in the third act where Grand Piano's screenplay goes off-key. Those motivations I talked about earlier are a bit convoluted, and the McGuffin would work were it not so central to the plot. Again, this is easy to look past when the suspense is piano-wire tight.
It also helps that Wood and Cusack - who is mostly only heard in voiceover - are so committed to the mystery. Wood ratchets up the intensity with every look he gives, and his talents at the piano are undeniable. He even gets to play the action star for a little while. Cusack is turning full-on creep for this one. Mira's decision to only hear his voice until the final moments make that ultimate reveal that much more of an impact. Cusack's recent turn towards more antagonistic roles is a welcome one, and he's suitably menacing every time out. The secondary cast - not counting the concert hall itself - includes Kerry Bishé as Selznick's movie star wife, who does great here playing more than the damsel in distress. That's Wood's part, actually. Alex Winter shows up as a security guard/secondary bad guy, and his banter with Cusack drives Grand Piano's lighter notes.
Mira keeps it light for the most part in Grand Piano, turning up the cheese along with the intensity. Fortunately, it never gets overpowering, and the mystery and suspense of it all is allowed to bounce before our eyes. Grand Piano is a stylish, quirky thriller that never hits too heavily. With a few, slight trims before its actual release, it could even get away with a PG-13 rating. That doesn't hold it back from being a highly entertaining game of cat-and-mouse, and, man, can that mouse play a mean piano.
Jeremy's Fantastic Fest Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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