Fantastic Fest: ‘Grand Piano’ Sets a New Standard in Piano Thrillers

By  · Published on September 23rd, 2013

by Michael Treveloni

So you’re a famous pianist, and the world is your oyster. You have an A-list movie star wife who should be out of your league, but talent goes far and you made quite an impression. All those years studying with that world famous maestro are paying off in spades and nothing can go wrong, right? Sure you fat fingered some ivories during a concert last time you played. No big deal, c’est la vie, right? Wrong. For Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) the flub was too much of a blow to his psyche. That was the day the house lights dimmed on his professional career. Seclusion came calling and who was he to ignore the call?


Tom is back! Lured out of retirement he agrees to play a concert honoring his mentor. His wife thinks it is a great idea. His conductor friend thinks it is a great idea. The public thinks it is a great idea. Most importantly, a greedy sniper thinks it is a grand idea. And so Grand Piano begins.

Selznick is a mess on show night. His nerves have gotten the best of him, but he vows to redeem himself and pay respect to his teacher by performing in the show dedicated to the late genius . With everyone cheering on his comeback he takes the stage only to discover there is someone there who isn’t his biggest fan. While turning pages on his sheet music he discovers a note from a potential assassin (a gruff and grumpy John Cusack) instructing him to play everything note for note or risk certain death. If Tom alerts anyone he’s dead. It’s that simple. He must play like his life depends on it. To top that off he is to play the most difficult piece his mentor ever wrote, the one that ended Tom’s career five years earlier.

Agreeing to the killer’s demand, Selznick composes himself as best he can. Eventually he is given an earpiece / microphone that allows him to communicate with his angel of death. From there the film gets cat and mousey with both parties calling each others bluffs and raising the stakes.

The script by Damien Chazelle has some nice-sized holes in its logic, but its saving grace is that it is far from clunky. Moving at a quick clip it plows on, escalating the game and not slowing down to get overwhelmed in details. A scene where Selznick obtains a cellphone and attempts to call for help is particularly amusing. It highlights some very minor characters and attempts to elevate their relevance to the story, and in doing so it exposes just how unprepared Selznick and the killer are to be caught up in their dance. It’s an unnecessary but fun detour.

If ’80s era DePalma got the itch to ape Dario Argento and cross pollinate with a dash of Larry Cohen, Grand Piano would be their resulting bouncing baby grand. Eugenio Mira’s vision is a ridiculous exercise of paranoia running on fevered style and flair. His camera floats effortlessly capturing the action as it spirals out of control. Paired with Unax Mendia’s beautiful cinematography, the film comes to life, bathed in silky blues and deep reds, providing exquisite scenery for Wood to chew up.

The glue thats holds it all together is the dedication and willingness of the actors to commit to the lunacy. Wood is harried, bouncing around like a frightened animal. Alex Winter moonlights as a slightly annoyed stage hand and assassin’s assistant. Kerry Bishé, playing Selznick’s wife, has a particularly vain character moment where she sings a solo in front of the entire audience based off a suggestion. All this is happening with Cusack barking orders and painting objects with his laser sight (that can magically target any area it wants to). By the time his murderous motivation surfaces it really doesn’t matter anymore. Grand Piano is an entertaining film that doesn’t ask much, only that you suspend disbelief and enjoy.

The Upside: A love letter to overly-stylized thrillers; some great scenes.; shots of Elijah Wood playing the piano are rather impressive

The Downside: Hard not to notice how silly it is

On the Side: Director Mira is also a composer and scored Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes. Vigalondo later went on to work with Wood on his new film Open Windows.

This designation is reserved for our special friends and neighbors who pop in to contribute to the wondrous world of FSR.