If there's one major takeaway from Grand Piano, it's that Hollywood should make director Eugenio Mira its go-to guy when it comes to high-concept thrillers. The movie is based on a ridiculous premise (more on that in a second) and takes place mostly in a single location, yet it manages to deliver a slick, entertaining night out at the theater based on nothing but pure style and a propulsive plot.
Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a famous concert pianist who hasn't played in public in five years -- he had a meltdown during his last performance while trying to tackle an allegedly impossible piece, which was composed by his eccentric mentor Godureaux. Now he's about to reenter the limelight with a high-profile concert, his movie-star wife (Kerry Bishé) watching him from the balcony, and every person he encounters wants to know if he's afraid of choking (we're thankfully spared the scene where Tom runs into someone viewing his past failure on YouTube, which has become the hack screenwriter's shorthand for "public humiliation"). An already nerve-racking challenge is made surreally worse when, while on-stage, Tom realizes that his sheet music is covered with threatening messages, stating that if he misses one note he'll be killed. Soon he's communicating via earpiece with an unseen madman with a sniper rifle, who tells him that he must attempt the impossible piece again or he and his wife are dead.
Which raises a fascinating question: Why on earth would a criminal mastermind care so much about whether Tom delivers a flawless comeback performance? The answer, alas, is pretty contrived and doesn't live up to the initial mystery (without giving too much away, it's connected to the missing fortune of the now deceased Godureaux), but Grand Piano is smart enough not to get hung up on the plot details underlying its high-concept premise. What's more important than the villain's motivation for his evil scheme is the pressure it places on the already terrified Tom, and in that respect, the concept of an "impossible" musical composition is a canny move on the part of screenwriter Damien Chazelle: It simultaneously clarifies the difficulty of Tom's task for an audience that might know little about classical music and gives him a personal stake in this challenge, all while setting up an intriguing dilemma -- how can he foil his tormentor's plans without botching the piece again in front of an audience?
Elijah Wood is very good in a role that demands a lot of him: He's the focus of almost every scene in the movie, and spends a long stretch of the running time essentially acting by himself while Tom converses with the voice on the other end of the earpiece. And he does much of this as his character is playing the piano -- while a professional pianist was no doubt used for some shots, the effect is seamless and never less than convincing.
That voice on the other end, by the way, belongs to John Cusack, who only shows up in person during the film's action climax. He's something of an odd choice for the villain -- how far down on the list of creepy character actors did the casting team get before they hit his name? Is Christoph Waltz too expensive for these roles now? Michael Shannon too much of a cliché? -- but he's effective playing against type. The rest of the cast are fine, although everyone is portraying a plot device rather than a character: the endangered wife, the henchman, the victims whose deaths escalate the threat, etc.
The real star here is director Mira, who supplies enough momentum and visual flair to make even sequences of Tom running through backstage hallways feel like something important is happening. There are occasional bits of in-your-face gimmickry -- a De Palma-esque split screen during a murder, a tight close-up of Tom with the background an abstract swirl of color as he comprehends the situation he's trapped in -- but Mira wisely doesn't rely on them too much; he understands that a high-concept premise only works if it feels grounded in reality. Which is pretty remarkable, when you think about it: He made a movie that's basically Speed with a piano feel believable, and you can't offer higher praise than that.