One of the pleasures of film festivals is discovering the films you don’t expect, whether it be a previously unheard of indie that blows you away or a film that you were skeptical about working winning you over. The latter is the case with Grand Piano, which manages to spin a smart, sharp, fun little thriller out of a premise that you wouldn’t think would be able to sustain a short film.
Speed on a piano. That’s the basic gist that Grand Piano gets reduced to, and while it’s a bit glib and unfair, it’s also essentially accurate. It’s one of those films—think Buried, Panic Room or Phone Booth—where a madman traps our hero or heroine in a single spot and they must use their wit to somehow find their way out of the situation. Here it’s Elijah Wood’s renowned pianist Tom Selznick, returning to the stage after a five-year hiatus due to stage fright, who finds himself at the mercy of a sniper who informs him, via notes on his sheet music and an earpiece in his dressing room, that he must play the most perfect concert of his life, not one single note missed, or he will die. Call for help, and his wife will also meet a similar fate.
The influence of Brian DePalma drips over every frame of Grand Piano, but director Eugenio Mira doesn’t merely imitate the master’s moves – he imbibes them wholesale, delivering a film with the same kind of playful spirit that marked the director at his prime. More than once, Dressed To Kill came to mind, and Mira employs a litany of visual tricks to keep Grand Piano from seeming (no pun intended) one note. Split diopter, close-ups, enough lurid primary color light to make Argento jealous, it’s all here, but Mira really drops jaws in two impressive sequences: a long take that sees Wood playing a very complicated classical piece without the aid of doubles and a sly murder sequence that ends with a transition that would make De Palma proud.
Mira is aided by a game cast, lead by a terrific, sympathetic Wood, whose neurotic Selznick immediately gets us on his side, grounding the insanity of the material. He’s joined by a just as good supporting cast, notably a welcome return from Alex Winter as a shady security guard and John Cusack, who supplies silky menace as the (mostly) unseen villain.
Damien Chizelle’s screenplay benefits from an efficient, stripped down nature that allows for ever inventive methods to allow Wood and Cusack to tango, and that also allows Mira to really dole out the cinematic flourishes. Grand Piano sounds like it shouldn’t work, but like all pleasant surprises, ends up hitting all the right notes.
5 out of 5 stars