Review: 'Grand Piano'

"Grand Piano" is a tight thriller with an interesting concept that doesn't quite stick its landing. Still, fans of stylish genre fare could do worse than spend a brisk 90 minutes in the company of musician Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) and the man holding him hostage during a live performance.

Selznick is a virtuoso pianist who choked during a performance five years ago. The movie begins just hours before his return to the stage, as Selznick's plane is rumbling through the sky and the sweaty, nearly bug-eyed musician is disappointed that they land safely. Selznick's set to make a hopefully triumphant comeback to the stage, playing on the beloved piano of his mentor, a Rasputin-looking composer named Patrick Godureaux. The event was set up by his beautiful, more successful wife, a bland blonde actress played by Kerry Bishé, who is as much of an attraction to the audience as the possible specter of Tom's failure. Everyone seems skeptical, from the interviewer who probes him on live radio as he struggles into his tux in a moving limo to the joker who wrote "Failznick" on the door outside of his dressing room backstage. Of course, the person who's most skeptical is Tom himself.

And then the threats begin. At first they're scrawled in red ink on his music sheets, and then they instruct him to dash backstage during a pause in the music, where Tom finds an earpiece that allows the man to fill his head with doubts and fears. If Tom misses a note or calls for help or in any way alerts others to his situation, he will be shot.

First, there's the red dot that dances across his hands, which the voice (John Cusack) tells him is attached to a gun with a silencer. The voice also threatens Tom's wife, Emma. It continues throughout Tom's performance, coaxing him into the best performance possible while also picking up on Tom's self-doubt. Is Emma more successful than Tom? Does she feel sorry for him? Is the audience just waiting for him to fail? The voice also picks up on Tom's wounded pride; Tom knows he's a more talented pianist than anyone alive, and more of a "person of note" than his wife (a phrase that the voice enjoys using). Will the threats force Tom to perform like never before, or will the stress of playing for his life make him choke worse than ever? After all, although the audience might not notice if Tom misses a note here or there, the voice will.

"Grand Piano" has several possible points to make about artistry and the desire to be acknowledged for one's unique talents. Both Tom and this sinister voice in his ear want to be "people of note," a phrase that pops up a few times. Of course, there are other things at stake, like the mysteriously missing fortune of the late Godureaux, but mostly "Grand Piano" dances around the curious mixture of self-doubt and pride that hounds artists.

None of these inquiries really gets fleshed out, as writer Damien Chazelle is busy making poor Tom run around the bowels of the symphony hall during his performance or try to text for help while playing. The audience and conductor are confused by Tom's bizarre behavior, but surely there's only so much room for a musician's eccentricities to take over during a live performance. Putting together a plot like this, which is supposed to take place in real time and puts its protagonist in a seemingly impossible situation, requires the kind of dexterity required of Tom to perform Godureaux's so-called "impossible piece." When the action is diverted from Tom's onstage terror, and even allows him brief moments of escape from the stage, "Grand Piano" fumbles.

Director Eugenio Mira manages to keep "Grand Piano" visually stimulating even when writer Damien Chazelle's script gets silly. The splashes of red and sickly green, the labyrinthine symphony hall, and even a brief scene with a murderous mirror shard call to mind "Suspiria" and other crimson-soaked giallos, although "Grand Piano" shies away from showing any real onscreen violence. Cusack makes the most of a primarily off-screen presence, and Alex Winter also does an admirable job as a fawning backstage assistant. Wood's energetic, tightly wound performance carries the movie; his ability to juggle all the different information coming at him — keeping time on the piano while speaking and hitting his cues — is admirable and probably exhausting. The actual music Tom and the symphony are playing and how it relates to the plot is probably lost on most viewers, including myself, but it unspools purposefully.

The weakest part is Chazelle's script, which doesn't quite manage to keep the conceit going for the entire movie. (He also wrote the script for the fairly ridiculous sequel to "The Last Exorcism.") However, his directorial debut "Whiplash," another high-pressure drama about a musician under duress, is worth looking forward to as its Sundance reception was practically a standing O.

SCORE: 7.0 / 10