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Dustin Putman

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Grand Piano  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by Eugenio Mira.
Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, Don McManus, Alex Winter, Dee Wallace.
2014 – 90 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for some language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 30, 2014.
Brian De Palma is destined to be mighty envious when he gets a load of "Grand Piano," a classy thriller that takes narrative minimalism to the precipice of stylized nirvana. Working from Damien Chazelle's (2013's "The Last Exorcism Part II") tautly drawn yet subjectively teeming screenplay, director Eugenio Mira casts a riveting spell over every facet of his visually arresting cinematic tableau. For a film that is set within a sprawling opera house for ninety percent of its compact running time, the picture feels surprisingly large and sweeping, the only claustrophobia coming from the lead character's terrifyingly extreme situation. Mira and masterful cinematographer Unax Mendía leave few stones unturned as they take edgily sumptuous advantage of their moody location and the crimson-draped architecture and decorating therein. Exuding quiet intensity and a sneaky restraint that causes one to believe they've seen more violence than they have—there is very little onscreen blood at all—"Grand Piano" remains hyper-focused and somehow all the more thoughtful because of its no-nonsense proficiency.

Five years ago, celebrated classical pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) abruptly retired from the profession, a combined result of nerves, fatigue and unwanted pressure. Now, at a lavish Chicago opera house, Tom is making a long-awaited return engagement with a concert dedicated to the memory of his late mentor, Patrick. Welcomed back with words of encouragement by some (upwards of three or four people tell him to "break a leg!") and hints of passive-aggressiveness from others, he anxiously prepares as an old case of stage fright looms. With the auditorium packed to the gills with patrons, Tom takes a seat in front of them at the piano. Backed by a full orchestra, he begins to tickle the ivories—and then notices a red arrow on his sheet music urging him to turn the page. When he does, a portentous message stares back at him: "Play one wrong note and you die." Angry and skeptical at first, Tom quickly discovers there is, indeed, a sniper in the building, prepared to shoot him and his actress wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé), in the head if he doesn't perform the increasingly difficult pieces—including one that has been deemed virtually "unplayable"—with exact precision.

"Grand Piano" opens in the bowels of a concert grand, a mounting opening-credits montage of evocative, almost bestial imagery edited to Victor Reyes' (2010's "Buried") seductively layered music score. As items from the deceased Patrick's personal collection—photos, a stone sculpture, and his revered instrument of choice among them—are loaded into a hauling truck to be transported to the concert, an anxious Tom returns to his old stomping ground with reminders of the past life he left behind. After half a decade away from the spotlight, it is a daunting prospect for Tom to not only return, but to live up to the expectations of his audience and critics. It is one thing to place pressure on oneself to do a good job, but quite another when there is a malicious life-or-death threat hanging upon every key he presses. As he tries to appease his mystery captor while also figuring out a way to outsmart him, a bigger conspiracy arises where no one connected to him—not his wife, who sits in a stage box, nor a couple of squabbling friends (Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech) in the audience—is safe.

Elijah Wood (2013's "Maniac") trained for several weeks to prepare for his technically demanding role of Tom Selznick, and the work pays off handsomely in the finished product. The movie is cut together cleverly, but does not overtly try to cheat. Wood is believable at the piano on top of additionally having to juggle high emotional stress and deliver dialogue (an earpiece he procures allows him to verbally communicate with the villainous heavy lurking about). There isn't much time to delve into Tom's background, but Wood fills in the gaps within the script by playing him as a guy haunted by his own history and hang-ups. The rest of the ensemble bring shading to the tale—John Cusack (2012's "The Paperboy") is the enigmatic Clem; Kerry Bishé (2011's "Red State") is supportive wife Emma; a welcome Alex Winter (Bill of 1988's "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure") is a stagehand embroiled in the devious plot—but it is Wood who carries the show.

As the camera weaves and swoops through the opera house as Tom is overtaken with jittery concentration, "Grand Piano" wisely chooses to resist turning him into a victim. Frightened beyond belief but determined to subvert the sniper's plans any way he possibly can, he moves into survivor mode even while hanging emotionally by a wire. If the third-act showdown falls upon convention and a key reveal had been best left in the shadows, director Eugenio Mira offsets a certain predictability with a sleek but wickedly cutthroat tone that continues to creatively regenerate itself with each new perilous development. The final image, not to be given away here, is especially vivid in its stark, off-center suggestiveness. "Grand Piano" takes a simple premise, one that could have easily fallen into repetition at feature length, and transforms it into a thriller of indelible polish and tingling verve.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman