Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), a master pianist who stopped playing in public after a catastrophic performance years ago, regards his mentor’s custom-made piano with the trepidation of a recovering addict. Less than poised before a Chicago audience that includes his famous actress wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé), he opens his sheet music to discover a message that he initially takes for a joke: “Play one wrong note and you die.” It could be the mantra that director Eugenio Mira, a different kind of rhythm man, embraces as he depicts Tom’s panic to stay alive as a maniac (John Cusack) barks taunts at him through an unbelievably acquired earpiece. As the musician’s fingers move in a blur through lightning-fast chords and octaves, the filmmaker paints Tom’s anxiety in a mini-masterstroke of fervid call-outs to cinema’s great masters of suspense.
Grand Piano’s premise suggests “Rhapsody Rabbit” by way of Phone Booth, and its artistry is a convincing homage to the internationally produced giallos of the ’80s. Mira thrills in watching Tom attempt to worm his way out of a most unusual hostage situation, synching his indulgences of style to the character’s wily physical maneuvering. As the pianist attempts to contact a friend via cellphone, then text message, all without his tormentor noticing and without playing a wrong note, the camera circles around him, sometimes hovering above him, and with a verve as manic as Tom’s pounding of the ivories. Mira may be chasing after Hitchcock’s ghost, but he does so in the key of the master auteur’s acolytes. In a delicious graphic match between the slicing of a woman’s throat and the bow stroke of a cello, and in one use of split screen that rather flimsily contrasts performance and murder, De Palma’s influence is especially felt (the opening tour of a piano’s innards is even set to music evocative of Ennio Morricone’s Untouchables score).
Mira doesn’t exert the same obsessional control behind the camera as Michele Soavi, whose Stage Fright is an obvious point of reference, but there’s something strikingly confessional in the way the filmmaker’s shaky improvisatory flourishes—from a long take that follows Emma from her hotel room into a conference room, to the lazy dilly-dollying around a frenzied Tom—parallel the main character’s performance anxiety. The true nature of the story’s hostage scenario, when revealed, strips the relationship between Tom and his god-like tormentor of its metaphysical mystery, and too fine a point is made of the pianist’s insecurity as an artist and how he’s received by the public. But in his drive to successfully play the final notes of the fictional composition “La Cinquette,” regardless of the state of his instrument, we see a little bit of Mira imagining himself as more than just a convincing drag act and plying his art as a mode of existential reckoning.