Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Language
Directed by: Eugenio Mira
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Tamsin Egerton, Kerry Bishe & Alex Winter
This is a film that could have easily become yet another claustrophobic thriller (in the vein of BURIED) or a PHONE BOOTH rip-off. Instead, GRAND PIANO winds up being a solid piece of entertainment. The visuals are beautifully shot. The tension is ratcheted to ridiculous degrees. The story is a lot of fun and the running time is well-paced. GRAND PIANO is the ultimate homage to the work of Hitchcock and De Palma. Despite being crafted like an elegant thriller, the film also plays out like a popcorn munching good-time. It’s crackling entertainment that doesn’t necessarily do anything new, but is executed in such a delightful manner that I really didn’t care that much about the predictable nature of the plot.
Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is considered to be one of the greatest living pianists. Due to a severe case of stage fright coupled with a few other mishaps, he retired. So his first concert in five years is being greeted with a packed house and much excitement. Tom is to play a group of increasingly difficult pieces that his deceased mentor cherished. To add to the stress, one of these pieces is also considered to be virtually unplayable. It is midway through the first piece that he notices the note scrawled on his music sheet. It reads: “Play one wrong note and you die.” Initially seeing the message as a bad joke, Tom doesn’t take it seriously. Turns out, this is far from a joke and there’s a sniper (John Cusack) in one of the balconies. This unwelcome armed guest is going to make sure Tom will play the most flawless concert of his entire life…or else he won’t live to see another day.
Professionally crafted in the technical aspects and thoroughly engaging, GRAND PIANO is a hell of a lot of fun! The film could have been primarily set on the stage with Elijah Wood engaging in a verbal duel with John Cusack. While that would have been entertaining in its own right, Eugenio Mira and Damien Chazelle were not so content to keep it at just that. Instead the story of the film goes through the entire concert hall in varying ways. This results in a few scenes that are nothing short of brilliant, including memorable moments involving a shard of broken mirror and an excellent tracking shot through the hallways of the concert hall.
There’s barely a moment that Elijah isn’t on-screen and for a guy who’s played Hobbits and serial killers, Wood sells you on his character of Tom very well. I gasped in certain moments because I felt so much for this guy. As the sniper, John Cusack remains off-screen for about 90% of the film and we mainly just hear his voice through a small microphone in Tom’s ear. He almost comes off as a less cynical version of Kiefer Sutherland’s (mostly heard) character in PHONE BOOTH. Cusack injects just the right amount of scathing humor and dark threats to keep the viewer on-edge.
The constant soundtrack in the film, provided by the concert, adds much to the excitement too. It is in the familiarity of it all that I take some issues. As exciting and entertaining as it is, GRAND PIANO isn’t necessarily anything new. Some of the plot feels by-the-numbers and the motivation of Cusack’s sniper character (revealed in the latter half of the film) is silly to say the least. Some people have jokingly said the film is SPEED with a piano or PHONE BOOTH in a concert hall. There’s some accuracy to these descriptions. I never once felt really surprised by where the film went. The conclusion gets a bit over-the-top and certain details are blatantly thrown in the viewer’s face to come back full-circle later. You can pretty much call where most of the story goes and that is a bit of a problem. This doesn’t diminish from how entertaining the film is as a whole.
There’s nothing majorly wrong with this PIANO. It feels familiar in a lot of areas and the plot is predictable. The excitement lies in the execution though. It’s a blast! This is a very enjoyable popcorn thriller wrapped in the gloss of a Hitchcock film. If that sounds up your alley, then you’re probably going to really like this movie. I don’t get some of the massive critical praise it’s been receiving, but it’s a really cool ride! GRAND PIANO comes recommended. Who knows? You may be afraid to ever touch an instrument or go to a concert hall again!