When I was trying to explain the premise of Grand Piano to some friends prior to seeing it, one of them replied, “So it’s Speed on a piano?” That’s apt enough, I guess, though I think that, having seen it, “Phone Booth on a piano” might be more accurate. Or maybe “Nick of Time on a piano,” though it’s probably better than either of those would imply.
In his video intro that played before the movie, Alamo founder Tim League said that Grand Piano was somewhere between Hitchcock and a Brian De Palma thriller. That’s a pretty good description, too. The setup certainly feels like vintage Hitchcock, and there are moments in the film that would be right at home in the oeuvre of Brian De Palma, particularly an off-kilter sequence complete with rotating camera and colored filters on the lights.
Grand Piano’s director Eugenio Mira is a Fantastic Fest veteran. His first feature film The Birthday screened at the first-ever Fantastic Fest back in 2005. Here he crafts a taut, charmingly simple thriller that feels short at 90 minutes. In this day and age, when just about every movie seems to feel the need to have half-a-dozen third act twists, the storyline of Grand Piano is remarkably straightforward. Elijah Wood plays a prodigy concert pianist who is returning to the stage for the first time in five years, after an epic meltdown the last time he played. John Cusack—mostly in the form of a voice on an earpiece—plays a sniper who threatens to kill him if he gets one note wrong.
The plot of the film is almost deceptively simple. It unfolds almost completely in real time, primarily in one location, and is scored mostly to the concerto that Wood is playing. The tension builds as much by the music and the composition of the shots as by anything that’s actually happening on screen.
Of course, while it doesn’t offer much in the way of the twists that we’ve come to expect in movies of this genre, it does have a few more complications to the plot, and a handful of supporting characters, including one played by Alex Winter himself, better known as Bill from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
The opening scenes establish a suitably foreboding quality leading up to the performance, and give the mystery a dramatic density that belies its fairly simple resolution, even before the sniper’s instructions make their appearance as handwritten notes in the margins of Wood’s sheet music. The revelation of the sniper’s motives is perhaps a little unlikely, but also so wonderful that I found myself completely not minding. There’s even an underplayed gag about “breaking a leg.”
Aside from the music and the camera work, Wood is the star of the show, of course, and most of the movie consists of shots of him sweating and/or vehemently playing the piano. He impressed with last year’s remake of William Lustig’s Maniac, and he does no less here. Word is that he took classical piano lessons in order to be able to play accurately in the various shots, and he does well holding the camera with very little to do besides look worried and intense.
Grand Piano’s simplicity is both a strength and a weakness. It is content to thrill, rather than trying to surprise, or wow you with spectacle or set pieces. As a result, it executes its early acts beautifully, but the climax feels perhaps a bit anticlimactic. Ultimately, Grand Piano is a well-crafted thriller grounded by an extremely solid central performance. Its restraint—especially in this age of excess—is as admirable as it is somewhat underwhelming.