Performance Anxiety: Grand Piano

02/26/2014 4:00 AM |

Grand Piano
Directed by Eugenio Mira

This high-wire thriller concerns, at its core, the escalating perils of performance: virtuoso pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) comes out of the woodwork for his first concert since a very public meltdown five years earlier, taking the symphony stage as his movie-star wife (Kerry Bishé) watches nervously from a balcony box. We first catch up with timorous Tom as he goes through the motions ahead of the show, but his anxiety changes in pitch as the program begins and he discovers a series of threats scrawled on his sheet music: there’s a sniper in the rafters (voiced by John Cusack), and he’s ready to pull the trigger if Tom hits even a single wrong note. His fears suddenly driving him toward survival instead of self-sabotage, the musician continues to bang away at the piano, the villain barking more specific orders via earpiece, and the restless camera swooping over the captive audience.

From here, the film gradually answers the question of whether Tom is in the crosshairs of a history-obsessed madman or at the center of some carefully orchestrated heist, with the focus tightening in on Tom’s artistic inheritance, the daunting legacy handed down to him by his gravely mysterious dead mentor. It’s hard not to root for this movie, the sort of winningly cut-rate Master of Suspense material engineered so that all its inner workings are clearly visible from the surface; the screenplay (by Damien Chazelle, the director of recent Sundance prizewinner Whiplash) at once needles the severe demands of high culture and the ratcheting absurdity of suspense mechanics, playing these two keynotes off each other so that the film feels impressively balanced in its over-the-top effect. Spanish director Mira’s style is distractingly loud, though—almost proudly devoid of any subtle dynamics, erupting occasionally in showy crane-shot flourishes. It’s as if you can feel him straining to rise to the virtuosic occasion—but perhaps that’s as it should be. As Grand Piano goes to show, the pressure to perform can get pretty intense.

Opens March 7