The nail-biting tension of a thriller will only go so far as the premise on which it is built. In some cases the setup is just too much to comprehend as plausible (see Untraceable) and any and all tension just feels fake and ultimately silly. A good portion of the time, however, the framing of a thriller is workable and you can allow yourself to settle in in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re dolling out too much benefit of the doubt.
Such is the case with director Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano, a thriller with just enough common sense logic and real threat to allow the viewer to go along for the ride. The film’s director builds his dynamic visual style around a relatively simple setup: a once publicly embarrassed concert pianist comes back to the stage to play his mentor’s famed piano only to be caught in a hostage situation with an unseen crazy person with a sniper rifle. The pianist Tom Selznick (the affable and likeable Elijah Wood) is wrought with stress and worry prior to being ensnared in this plot (by the largely unseen John Cusack) so you do feel a bit for him before it gets really serious. His wife Emma is a young, famous actress of note (played by Kerry Bishé) and the rumblings of her star overshadowing her husband feels endearing and real in the way it is played. Emma is played as kind at her core, not some fame junkie, so when she becomes threatened (unknowingly) right along with Tom, it ratchets up the tension more. Having her character be a self-centered type wouldn’t have allowed the life and death threat feel more personal.
Getting back to the visual style, anyone who enjoys Spanish or Italian horror and suspense films will note a great deal of good-natured borrowing in the dramatic vibe of Mira’s camera. And as striking as the deep reds and washed light are, the score is even more bombastic and strong. Mira, who scored Timecrimes (2007), pulls off a neat trick with the score in that he can interweave super-dramatic music into the story because much of the bulk of the film takes place with an orchestra on-camera. I mean, you don’t question the music because there all the musicians sit, sheet music at the ready. This plays back into the hostage plot, as it were, because Tom is isolated at the piano and what better way to get his attention than in red pen scrawl in his copy of that very same score. Constructive notes, they are not.
The middle section of Grand Piano is where the film excels the most. The tempo and pulse of the film feel fluid and natural and once the circle of threat and the breadth of the threatener are both expanded, you really find yourself wondering where it is going. This is a bracing feeling and with the combination of washed reds and booming music you are really set at fifth gear with little chance of slowing down.
Unfortunately, once the killer is revealed and the true nature of Tom’s ‘kidnapping’ is shown out, the film must tie a bunch of stuff down to resolve the whole matter. While not outlandish or dumb by any stretch, it feels a bit formulaic by the time we get to the final conclusion. We know, from watching a thousand of these, that the good guy does a good thing and the bad guy gets him or herself dead in some dramatic fashion. But when the film goes a little tiny bit further than that, I found myself angry and frustrated they couldn’tve gone just a little more into it. Not that the film has a crap ending as it stands, but, with a little more time and a little more subversion on the part of the script, the ending could’ve been a gut punch whammo a la Jaume Balagueró’s beautifully creepy Sleep Tight.
But, arguing the film that wasn’t versus the film that was is kind of a waste of time. The choices made in this film keep it controlled and keep it tight through much of the meat of it and the simplistic nature of the threat is refreshing in its lack of dumbness. The film is lovely to watch and lovely to experience despite its almost classic ending potential.