Some critics have been so ecstatic about Eugenio Mira’s new limited-release thriller Grand Piano they have been openly comparing it to Alfred Hitchcock. While Grand Piano is not as good as Hitchcock’s oeuvre, it can at least be compared to some of the better suspense films of Brian De Palma (complete with a split-screen effect), and that’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s certainly a few hairs better than Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth, the not-too-bad 2003 movie that it closely resembles.
Grand Piano is a wholly engaging and wonderfully taut thriller that manages to wring tension from what is essentially a single location and a series of closeups and voiceovers. Suspense thrillers always work better when they are enclosed and the number of players is limited. In Grand Piano, almost the entire film is a verbal back-and-forth between an unseen, rifle-sporting assailant (voice of John Cusack), and a man performing on stage at a major piano concert (a nervous Elijah Wood). Low budget film, high-concept premise, and two good actors bantering. It works.
Wood (amazing) plays Tom Sleznick, reported to be one of the best pianists of his generation. He is trying to live down the shame of an attack of stage fright he experienced five years earlier, preventing him from perfecting a real-life “impossible piece.” Tonight, he is to perform for the first time since then with his wife and a whole concert hall watching. While performing, he discovers ominous messages written in his sheet music, declaring that his wife (Kerry Bishé) will die if he makes a mistake. He eventually comes across a telephone earpiece, and he begins hearing the threatening words of a silent gunman (Cusack) lurking somewhere in the theater, able to shoot holes in things without anyone noticing. From there, Tom has to figure out how to signal people from the stage, and solve the mystery of who his assailant is with nothing more than conversation, a surreptitious cell phone, and only a few brief departures from the stage. Could the wife be in on it? How about the wife’s two friends (Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leach)? How about the helpful security guard (the awesome Alex Winter — good to see him back)? Or maybe it’s all controlled by Tom’s conductor friend (Don McManus).
I will say nothing more about the plot, ultimate goals, or secret alliances, but I will say that some of the reveals are really cool, and some of them are – perhaps predictably – kind of silly. Indeed, the ultimate climax involves more chasing and last-minute face-off than the previous cool, steel trap maneuvers would have suggested. What Grand Piano manages to do, though, is what all of the best thrillers do: create genuine tension out of a seemingly innocuous situation. It may not be all that plausible that a star pianist is secretly being harangued by a murderer at the very same time he is performing on stage (and not missing a note, I might add), but Grand Piano makes us think that it might actually happen, that the nervous musician actually does have an earpiece on, and that his mumbling may actually be a back-and-forth with someone offstage.
I cannot credit Elijah Wood enough as a performer. I’ve always admire the man for playing resolute, often mildly defeated people, and here his natural on-screen skittishness aids him greatly. Also, it does seem that Wood bothered to learn a lot of the piano he performs in this film. Either that, or the special effects used to fudge his playing are impeccable.
Grand Piano has been touted by early reviewers as one of the better horror films of the year. It certainly falls into the camp of deserving quality films that perhaps require more hype than your average studio film to ensure people see it. I cannot say for certain that this is a top-ten-of-the-year movie, but I recommend Grand Piano.