Classical Stage Fright: "Grand Piano" a tautly crafted De Palma-esque opus

Grand Piano (2014)
90 min., rated R.

Armed with a nervy, simple, and rather inspired gimmick fit for a tight 90-minute running time, "Grand Piano" is a crafty little thriller Brian De Palma probably wished he got around to making. Tautly devised with a skillful flair and class by director Eugenio Mira, working from a nicely sustained script by writer Damien Chazelle (2013's "The Last Exorcism Part II" and this year's Sundance favorite "Whiplash"), the film is executed with a hypnotic alchemy in bringing his audience to a fever pitch. While confining its protagonist at a stationary piano in a wide-open auditorium, it never feels anything short of cinematic with a stylized sweep.

Five years ago, gifted and famed classical pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) took a hiatus from tickling the ivories due to nerves and pressure. On a special night at a swanky Chicago concert hall, he plans to make a comeback performance dedicated to deceased mentor Patrick. Tom is nervous about choking and flubbing notes again. He's welcomed back with encouraging words, but discouraged by not-so-nice words from others. The hall is a packed house and his adored actress wife Emma (Kerry Bishé) sits in a box seat. When the time comes to play his score, he takes a seat, backed by a philharmonic. As he begins turning the sheet music, an alarming red message has been written inside the margins "Play one wrong note and you die." Initially assuming it's just a mean prank, Tom finds more messages on the next few pages and notices a red laser targeting him from the balcony, confirming that if he stops playing or asks for help he will be shot between the eyes. In between rests, Tom gets a call from the sniper (John Cusack) and makes him wear an earpiece, listening to all of his threatening plans in front of the piano. The jittery pianist must then flawlessly play an "unplayable" piece, or else Emma will die, too. (Emma and Tom's friends, a complaining couple, are also used as comic relief and body-count fodder; in other words, no one is safe.) This perilous situation can only add to Tom's anxiety, putting what's worse than his career at stake: his life.

"Grand Piano" opens with a deliciously elegant title sequence over Victor Reyes' beautifully unsettling doom-laden score and imagery of a concert grand. Constructed in real time, Tom's heightened predicament is rendered plausible and the film is nearly airtight in its concise narrative and pacing. Camera movements are scrupulously orchestrated with the kind of fluid, operatic swoops and technical bravura worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as any showboating by De Palma. After scalping women as a pathetic killer in 2013's "Maniac," Wood is back to playing a relatively normal type. As Tom, the actor embodies not only the character's anxieties, desperation, and refusal to be a victim by multitasking at the piano but, most technical of all, musical talent without breaking total concentration. Wood pulls a fast one on the audience, having practiced with a piano teacher for only three weeks, and his finger work that wasn't faked with editing certainly paid off. Capable support abounds: Cusack mines menace with his voice as the mysterious sniper; Bishé exudes warmth and modesty as Emma; Don McManus lends humor as Tom's friend and conductor; and Alex Winter (Bill of "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure") also turns up as the sniper's backstage security assistant. 

Holding back on cheap thrills when expertly mounting tension and dread will do just fine, "Grand Piano" is also sleekly restrained and masterfully timed in its off-stage violence that is suggestive in the Hitchcockian vein. Even as the finale comes down to a more standard confrontationand the sniper's explained motivation for his elaborately staged plot remains a mere MacGuffin—"Grand Piano" is riveting, unpredictable, and endlessly stylish. It's one of those one-location pressure cookers, not unlike "Speed" and "Phone Booth," and a "refrigerator movie," where you'll have fun as long as you don't go poking for holes upon more careful scrutiny after the show.

Grade: B +