Lean and very mean
The outcome of ‘Grand Piano’ hinges on one wrong note
By Michael Nordine 03/13/2014
“Isn’t it amazing what you can get away with in a crowded theater when all eyes are on the stage?” So asks the disembodied voice that serves as “Grand Piano’s” seemingly omnipotent antagonist, a man with a high-powered rifle and a balcony seat all to himself. The lion’s share of Eugenio Mira’s stripped-down thriller takes place over the course of one lavish concert, with Elijah Wood starring as a renowned pianist making his return to the stage after a catastrophic rendition of his mentor’s supposedly unplayable concerto led to a five-year hiatus. Prone to stage fright on the best of days, Tom is already nervous enough before seeing a note scrawled in blood-red ink just after he’s begun playing: “Play one wrong note and you die.”
The man enacting this scenario, whose voice you’ll recognize even if you can’t quite place it until you eventually see his face, barks orders to his captive collaborator via a conveniently placed earpiece. Tom’s initial reaction is disbelief, and it takes the sight of a nearly silent bullet landing nearby to turn him into a believer. “Grand Piano’s” trick is a simple one, but Mira does a decent job of milking for everything it’s worth the fact that neither Tom nor the audience knows why any of this is happening. Should our reticent hero act out of turn or indirectly alert anyone to his life-or-death predicament, he runs the risk of a madman shooting him down. This feeling of confinement, to say nothing of the thousands in attendance unknowingly bearing witness, results in many a breathless sequence.
It isn’t always enough. “Grand Piano” is lean and economical, but it often feels slight as well. You get the sense that, even if Mira is succeeding at what he set out to do, he’s playing it safe by relying so firmly on the Brian De Palma textbook without expanding on it. There are moments of cleverness throughout — especially the subtle reveal of the “unplayable” concerto’s significance — that help make up for this, however.
We find out little about Tom and nothing about anyone else. We learn only what Mira needs us to know: that he expresses himself via his playing, and several dialogue-free stretches allow the director to indulge his fixation on the dexterity of the pianist’s lightning-fast fingers and the inner workings of the eponymous instrument — it’s as though you can literally see the film’s gears turning. Those gears may not be as complex as the piano’s, but they’re still worth watching.