Elijah Wood either has the greatest agent in town or he has impeccable taste because he seems to keep finding himself in interesting and very entertaining genre films where he shines as the film’s lead. Coming off the unexpectedly amazing “Maniac” remake, Wood is front and center in the cracking thriller that is “Grand Piano”.
Wood plays Tom Selznick, a famous pianist who hasn’t been on stage for five years after his last performance ended disastrously. In honour of his late mentor, he is coaxed back on stage to perform an “unplayable” piece that was created by his teacher and friend. Panic and nerves seem to still have a hold on poor Tom, as he isn’t even sure himself whether or not he will freeze again once on stage. As Tom sits down in front of his piano and the concert starts, he awaits his moment to contribute but after a few bars into his performance he notices a chilling note written in red on his sheet music: “PLAY ONE WRONG NOTE AND YOU DIE”. He is then made aware of an ominous red dot, obviously from a laser sighting from a rifle, aimed directly at him. The notes continue on his sheet music and instruct Tom to go to his dressing room during a break in the music and obtain an ear piece that had been placed in there for him, where he is given further instructions by a mysterious stranger. Tom is told to play the most perfect performance of his life, and if he plays one wrong note, his wife (who is also a famous actress and is watching her husband from a balcony seat) will be murdered in retaliation. If Tom thought there was pressure on him before to perform, he is about to find out the true definition of stage fright.
“Grand Piano” is a superbly crafted thriller; one that continually builds its suspense right until its fitting finale. If you read the above synopsis of the film, you may be initially wondering how it is possible to build palpable suspense that an audience needs to feel when our main protagonist is stuck at a piano for the majority of the film. Basically that is the genius of the film because director Eugenio Mira directs the hell out of “Grand Piano” to create an exciting and excitingly visual picture. Through his direction he creates a feeling of constant movement, so we forget that all we are watching is a man at a piano. Much has been written about how the film has a Hitchcockian feel to it, and I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment as “Grand Piano” has the feel of the ending of “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, modernized and amped up to eleven. Mira constantly finds inventive ways to shoot his leading man at the piano and even includes a split screen sequence that immediately brings to mind the films of Brian De Palma. There are also a couple of murder scenes of minor characters that again have been inventively handled and beautifully edited to fit in time with the music being played.
The film starts slow as we watch poor Tom fretting about failing again on the big stage, while he attempts to get dressed in the back of a limo. Wood is fantastic in these early scenes by giving his character not only a meekness but a vulnerability, that exposes that he is a shell of his former self. He no longer believes in himself and is only going back on stage to honour his old mentor. In this early section of the film, we also meet Tom’s wife, Emma, and find out that she is a big Hollywood actress. Despite her fame and celebrity, it is quite evident that Emma really cares about Tom and him returning to the stage, and she understands how important the night is for Tom and his future. Although both parties in this marriage are famous, through the performances of Wood and Kerry Bishe, they actually come across as very grounded and caring people, and appear like any normal married couple. Some people may find the opening ten minutes or so of “Grand Piano” to be a little boring but they are paramount to the success of the film because it lays the groundwork for the audience to know and care for both members of the Selznick family.
As soon as the music kicks in, the thriller aspects of “Grand Piano” immediately begin and the combination of the music and action that is displayed on screen is perfect in its unison. The music definitely enhances the visuals and helps create the film’s chilling suspense. While I know nothing about music and less about playing a piano, Elijah Wood was adept in convincing me that he knew what he was doing behind that piano. Again, I would have no clue if his fingering was correct, but I believed it was and that is all the filmmaker and actor has to do in this instance. What is also interesting about this part of the film is the way Elijah Wood’s performance subtly changes. While he still has a fear within him, it is due to an outside influence and not his own demons and as such it appears to give him an inner confidence in a strange way. He doesn’t come across as weak as he did earlier in the film and it seems that this confidence has given Tom a strength to defy his tormentor.
Although “Grand Piano” is strictly an entertaining thriller, I felt that Eugenio Mira also added in some subtext in regards to celebrity and the way the media promotes it. There are a number of times during the film that our antagonist mentions that Tom is an “artist of note”, unlike his much more famous wife. To me I took this as Mira suggesting that today’s society puts too much focus on and rewards people with mediocre talent just because they are a celebrity while people with real talent like Tom are subsequently ignored. Furthermore during the scene in the limo, Tom is on the phone with a radio station that keeps trying to insinuate that Tom has a problem with his wife because she is now more famous than he. This couldn’t be further from the truth, but the interviewer keeps plugging away at the same questions in an attempt to get a “controversial” soundbite from Tom, which really does mirror the way entertainment “journalism” is performed these days.
Overall, if you sit back and actually think about the plot of “Grand Piano”, it is absolutely ridiculous. The whole motivation behind our antagonist’s actions is so unbelievable that it would never happen in the real world, but it just goes to show that if you handle the material at your disposal correctly and respect the story you are telling, you can make anything seem real which is what Eugenio Mira has done here. As good as Elijah Wood is as Tom Selznick, “Grand Piano” is really Mira’s film. He directs the hell out of the film to create the best and most entertaining thriller I have seen in ages. Visually, the film is a tour de force and I welcomed the echoes of both De Palma and Hitchcock in the film. Probably my favourite thing about the film is the fact that “Grand Piano” is short; the film only runs 78 minutes (I know the film has an “official” running time of 90 minutes, but it has a very long 12 minutes of end credits). It tells its story and then ends, there is no filler to bog it down. I loved “Grand Piano” and think it has an extremely high re-watch value, and I recommend it to everyone.