This Spanish-made, Chicago-set film is a high concept thriller with a deviously simple premise, that it sticks to and gets a lot out of. Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, a former piano prodigy who, after breaking down with stage fright during an important concert, took a five year break from performance. Now he’s due to make his big comeback, playing a famous piano designed by his now-deceased mentor, who was also the composer of the supposedly ‘unplayable’ piece he previously messed up.
At a crisp 90 minutes with credits, the only point when the film feels too slow is in its introductory segments, it spends its first 20 minutes setting up a premise that could have be dealt with in half that, but from that point on, it doesn’t really miss a beat.
Its diverting premise is thus; once Tom starts playing he finds notes written on his score informing him that if he plays one wrong note he will be killed, as a sniper has his sights focused on him. Dismissing the notes at first, he begins to see some credibility within them and runs to his locker room between movements to retrieve an earpiece with which he and his assailant can communicate.
The shooter is, in an inspired casting choice, portrayed by John Cusack. He delivers a wonderfully effective piece of voice acting, striking a balance between sinister, measured, and deranged. He’s barely seen at all except when absolutely necessary toward the climax. It’s almost a shame he’s featured heavily on the film’s poster (and indeed opening credits) as there could have been an opportunity for audiences to deduce who he was before the reveal, a la Kevin Spacey in Seven.
This Phone Booth meets Speed on a piano scenario understandably produces some erratic on-stage behaviour from Tom, but out knowledge of his prior situation makes it an easy sell for the (on and off screen) audience. It only feels a bit hard to swallow when he manages to leave the stage during pieces (are there any piano concertos with rests for the pianist long enough to actually do this?).
One frequent problem movies run into with actors portraying musicians is when they are clearly not actually playing the instruments they are supposed to be. I have some background in music (though not piano) and I have to say there wasn’t really any moment in this film where Wood’s playing looked fake, even with his character’s apparent great skill. I’d be interested to know what a real piano player thinks of it but the editing looked fairly spot-on to me, (though talks of an ‘impossible piece’ might not go down too well with one).
Naturally, Cusack’s character has a motive for staging this elaborate plan which gradually comes into play. While it is a tad ridiculous, I would have expected nothing less from a film of this kind, and it is sufficiently satisfying in that respect.
While Wood and Cusack are on great form, Grand Piano also has an amusing but distracting ‘hey it’s that guy!’ appearance from Alex ‘Bill from Bill & Ted’ Winter, and a sub-plot involving Tom’s exceedingly bland movie star wife, though admittedly they try to work her disinterest in Tom’s profession into the story a little.
Throughout Tom’s ordeal, director Eugenio Mira’s camera work is impressive, revealing a clear De Palma influence, employing split screens and several sweeping shots around the auditorium. He keeps it gripping and brings it to a brisk conclusion showing none of the pacing issues the opening scenes possessed.
Grand Piano might take place in the highbrow world of classical concert halls, but it has no such pretensions itself, it knows exactly what it is; a fun little thriller, and is all the better for it.