“If you’re going to play music this dense, you’re going to hit a wrong note,” a conductor tells Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) shortly before he goes on stage for the first time in five years in “Grand Piano,” assuring him, “No one will notice.”
The sentiment does little to calm Tom’s nerves, nor should it since it’s not long after the accomplished pianist sits down at his Bosendorfer, a set of ivory keys that’s suggested to be the Stradivarius of pianos, that he discovers a hitman (John Cusack) is paying attention to his every keystroke, threatening to kill both he and his wife (Kerry Bishe) should his fingers slip. And while the premise of Eugenio Mira’s third feature is every bit as preposterous as it sounds from that description, it is also preposterously fun, set largely in a single location but so skillfully crafted that it feels like a world of activity is going on inside the Antonio Michelle Concert Hall as Wood’s Tom attempts to play “La Cinquette,” a composition that’s thought to be unplayable.
Yet that simple set-up gives Mira and screenwriter Damien Chazelle plenty of room to play, with a tet-a-tet between the pianist and Cusack’s unnamed marksman taking hold early and only tightening its grip as the film wears on even as cinematographer Unax Mendia’s camera soars above the stage and roams the concert hall with great abandon, filling out everything that’s at stake for Tim. No doubt Mira took inspiration from Brian DePalma, whose grand guiginol bombast and sleek tracking shots are unmistakably present in “Grand Piano,” but the film often pushes those elements further with almost nary a scene where the camera stays still and a suspenseful score that draws upon Mira’s innovative work as a composer on such films as “Timecrimes” while keeping in line with the classical music Tim plays.
The effective mix of old and new that courses through the film’s entire bloodstream is evident from its opening title sequence, a bold and elegant fetishization of a piano that makes its outer contours sexy and its interior strings appear sharp enough to kill. It’s understandable then why Tim would walk away from such a daunting instrument, despite the fact he was considered a virtuoso under the tutelage of a famous mentor who since passed away. With his confidence shaken, the only thing he has left is a movie star wife and once a few pages of his sheet music suggest something’s amiss and he can see a little red laser dot aimed at his lapel and his wife in the balcony, Tim must let his fingers do the work as his mind reels about how to get out of this situation, alone on stage where he’s completely isolated by the spotlight.
Cusack’s grim and occasionally wry running commentary into an earpiece Tim wears is the perfect contrast to the extravagance of the rest of the film, unimpressed in the moments where Tim outsmart him and underwhelmed by the work of his henchman (played by Alex Winter, a true sight for sore eyes) who roves around the hallways looking for threats to their plan. Although the end goal slowly reveals itself, it hardly matters when the battle of wits between Tim and the hitman is so involving on its own. (Between this and “The Last Exorcist Part II,” Chazelle has strayed far in genre from his musical debut “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” but makes the words dance here.)
Though the film revels in its absurd premise, the skill involved and the actors’ insistence on playing it straight make it a true cinematic experience, one that’s such a love letter to other films that it’s surprising there’s no nod to Cusack’s last turn as a hitman in “Grosse Pointe Blank.” Still, that’s about the only trick missed in “Grand Piano,” which is all and all a decadent delight.
“Grand Piano” was picked up for U.S. distribution by Magnolia Pictures. It will play Fantastic Fest once more on September 24.