'Grand Piano' is a delicious piece of suspense filmmaking
Grand Piano Magnet Releasing
Director: Eugenio Mira
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Don McManus, Tamsin Egerton, Alex Winter and Allen Leech
Rated R / 1 hour, 30 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
A simple plot description of Grand Piano tells us it's about a man, alone on a stage, being terrorized by a solitary figure. But that's not true. He's under attack from all sides. He's practically ambushed!
The man, a world-renowned concert pianist named Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), is making his long-awaited return to the stage following a five-year retirement. He sits at the back of the stage, far separated from the orchestra seated up front. For nearly the duration of his performance, his prime accompaniment will be the voice in his earpiece, telling him that if he misses a note - even one note - he will die. He will be shot through the head, and that will be that. No explanations required.
But the would-be assailant is hardly alone. Sharp lines pierce Tom from all angles. Lights criss-cross against his body, practically cutting him in pieces. The harsh glare of the spotlight, towering from the ceiling, forces him into position. Darkness surrounds him just outside his perimeter. The camera squeezes him like a vice into the corner of the frame. At a certain point, we cut to a wide shot from the balcony, revealing intersecting lines and shadows framed just behind him in the form of an X.
Yes, if Tom is in danger from anyone, it's director Eugenio Mira, who surrounds his besieged protagonist with a magnificent tapestry of visual threats that transform the sinister voice into an all-encompassing danger. It's a remarkable piece of filmmaking from Mira, who I'd never heard of before this film, but who, on purely cinematic terms, may be something of a natural. He makes us constantly aware of Tom's state of mind, suggesting much more with his lighting and the placement of his camera than the voice (John Cusack) could ever do merely with words. Cusack tells us what we need to know, but Mira makes us - and Tom - feel it.
His direction turns an ostensibly silly movie into a tight, deliciously loopy potboiler, composing a portrait of desperate, paranoid suspense that borders on the surreal. His visual hints are reminiscent of those of Howard Hawks in Scarface: Shame of a Nation, among others. While I'm sure Hitchcock has been frequently cited, and that DNA is certainly present, the self-consciousness of Mira's use of deep crimson (i.e. on the carpet beneath Tom's feet and the curtains hanging above his head) makes it more reminiscent of Brian DePalma. In fact, the film as a whole plays like a less lurid version of a DePalma movie.
Mira is scrupulously efficient in the way he deploys the crucial elements of Damien Chazelle's screenplay. There are a lot of little moving parts at work here, full of silly twists and background action - a tease here, an unexpected changing of the rules there - but Mira knows exactly when to tone his visual bravura down and let the script do the heavy lifting, and when to ratchet things back up. It's not just a nifty balancing act but an extremely efficient piece of storytelling as a whole; he lets each script detail do its job, but never dwells on anything for too long. This is a psychological thriller that needs to be as compact as possible, so he dials down the exposition and keeps the suspense humming. We don't just gloss over the absurdities of the script - we embrace them. There's a playfulness to it all that's lost on no one - except, of course, Tom.
I don't want to discount Wood's performance, because it's essential as well (though, to be fair, he still looks like he's 17 years old, so it's a tad difficult to accept him as a five-years-retired concert pianist; but I'll just go with it). But the anxiety of his performance goes hand-in-hand with what Mira is doing to him visually.
As a director, he's ruthless - so good, in fact, that I was more easily able to forgive the late stages of the script, which uncover rather ordinary secrets and explanations. Going just by the developments there, this could have been a different film entirely - which is to say, it could have been a film whose effectiveness actually relied on what John Cusack's character is really up to, and why he's doing what he's doing to poor Elijah Wood.
But Grand Piano is not that movie. It doesn't really matter why Tom has to play every note perfectly, or what his adversary really wants with him. The big picture is not important. Because even with those underwhelming explanations, Mira delivers in the end, heightening the silliness of the climactic action to nearly operatic heights. More than most movies even, this one is about the journey - the frayed nerves, the psychological terror, brought to glorious life by Mira's eye - and not so much the destination.