“Grand Piano” (2013)
by A.J. Hakari
My cinematic weaknesses are many. Should any film happen to boast con artists, found footage, or Kat Dennings, chances are that their pockets will be lined with my dollars sooner than later. I’m also a bona fide sucker for gimmicky thrillers, flicks that write themselves narrative obstacles around which they’re forced to direct a steady stream of suspense. Single-setting movies like Buried or Phone Booth pique my interest in a big way, and while I’ve been burned before (it’s you I’m shooting the stink eye at, ATM), I’m always up for seeing how they overcome the challenges of making a crackerjack picture under such restricted conditions. Going into Grand Piano, I’d heard that it was one of the better titles in recent years to employ this style, reports that I’m relieved to confirm are true indeed. Tightly-paced and constantly on edge in one way or another, Grand Piano goes beyond just having a novel premise to deliver a gripping and very satisfying experience.
Few can claim to have experience the sort of stage fright that gifted pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is about to. Five years have passed since Tom last performed publicly, having flamed out by botching a difficult piece composed by his mentor. But with the encouragement of his actress wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), he’s taking to the stage one more time, to play in a concert dedicated to his dearly departed teacher. However, more is at stake than his public image this time around. Soon after the show begins, Tom is notified by a disembodied voice (John Cusack) who claims that he has a sniper rifle trained on him, which he plans to fire if a single wrong note is struck. With no way to call for help without endangering Emma’s life, Tom is forced to continue, completely at the mercy of a madman he can’t see. But when the shooter’s scheme involves confronting him with the composition that stymied him all those years ago, will Tom be up to the task of pulling it off and making it out of his ordeal alive?
When you have a premise like the one at Grand Piano‘s core, the temptation to overcomplicate things is tough to resist. A filmmaker imagines viewers growing restless with the simplicity at work and wants to give them more bang for their buck with an elaborate payoff, only for the story’s entire conceit to unravel and become too ludicrous to hold up. But the genius behind Grand Piano lies with how it sticks to its guns, how it keeps its proceedings relatively grounded and refuses to pile on twist after inane twist to bestow upon itself the illusion of bigness. On the one hand, yeah, that means providing pretty stock answers to the mystery behind who the bad guy of the day is and why he’s targeting Tom, all of which inspire nitpicks to sprout up from the woodwork if they’re paid the slightest bit of mind. But it’s nothing that causes the tension that director Eugenio Mira spends the movie establishing and heightening scene by scene to go up in smoke, nor does it bring to the forefront any moments where it’s obvious that the plot is just stalling for time.
Not counting the ending credits, Grand Piano falls short of the 80-minute mark, which feels like a good, snug fit. It introduces the principal players, gives us just enough background info to feel a little extra something for the characters, and comes to a close right before whatever plot holes we might have spotted dominate our minds. The film also isn’t presented as stiffly as you might think, with the camera often leaving Tom at his piano to roam around the concert hall, which bodes well for the thrill factor when other parties get involved with the situation without his knowledge. Mira simply does a terrific job of preserving the anticipation of seeing how Tom gets out of this one with expedience and without obliterating our suspension of disbelief. Wood gives us a rock-solid turn as our hero, nailing the character’s insecure nature before he even steps foot onstage but convincing us that he can keep his act together under the ultimate pressure. Cusack serves as a fine foil, with his no-nonsense voice chipping away at Tom’s self-esteem (although, as with Kiefer Sutherland in Phone Booth, his presence would’ve benefitted greatly had the marketing campaign kept it secret).
Grand Piano is likely to win over more fans than a tougher sell like the underappreciated Buried. It’s a film that doesn’t mince words, one that doesn’t pad out its running time with characters talking in circles and hardly has a minute to its name that doesn’t feel constructive. Grand Piano doesn’t last terribly long, but in the moment, it makes sure that your seat’s edge is occupied comfortably.