Fantastic Fest 2013: GRAND PIANO Thrills With A Delicate Balancing Act

Grand Piano does everything I want a great thriller to do. The film will certainly be among my favorites of Fantastic Fest 2013 and only time will tell, but it might well be a go-to thriller for me for years to come. The film is directed with elegance by Fantastic Fest alumni director (whose work is previously unfamiliar to me) Eugenio Mira, starring a friend he made at Fantastic Fest 2 years ago (some guy named Elijah Wood), and is written by Damien Chazelle.

So, what do I love to happen in my thrillers, and why do I feel like Grand Piano succeeds so completely?

For one thing, I love movies that take place over a single day or night. That is always a fun conceit to me, and it is a real challenge from a writing standpoint. How do you create characters that the audience knows and understands and tell a complete story with them if you are trapped within a single day? But you know what I like even more than movies set in a single night? Movies told in virtually real time. All of the events of Grand Piano probably take place over the course of roughly 2 hours movie time, and Mira and Chazelle pull it off with aplomb.

Elijah Wood stars as a master pianist, the pupil of an eccentric mentor. Five years ago Wood’s character failed spectacularly in a concert where he attempted to play an “unplayable” piece. And tonight, he is making his fearful return to the public spotlight. But when notes begin to appear on his sheet music along the lines of “Miss a note and you’re dead,” an incredibly tense and entertaining game of cat and mouse begins.

I would say that another thing I like in my thrillers is a high concept premise. But honestly, I’ve started to turn against high concept films recently. I value characters more and more as I get older and can’t help but believe that, more often than not, a high concept comes at the expense of good character work and, perhaps more importantly, any sense of reason or logic. A great example of this is the recent Now You See Me. I had fun while watching the film, but the twists and turns of Now You See Me absolutely undercut any sense of logic or character development.

But you know what? I can get down with a high concept when it is done well. And Grand Piano plays this premise smart. As with ANY film of this type, the third act is where things start to unravel. When bad guys are revealed, motives are explained, and crescendos of violence flourish, you have to be along for the ride already or the whole thing falls apart. But I was so fully engaged, with a big fat smile on my face, that I loved every minute of this film. And to be fair, while the third act of Grand Piano does have to play its hand a little bit and the answers might not be as rewarding as the questions were… this film smartly leaves a couple of questions unanswered and never veers into the patently ridiculous. My suspension of disbelief remained perfectly intact throughout, even right up until the final shot, which I found myself praying would play out exactly as it did.

Wood’s character Tom Selznick was immediately relatable. We meet him as his flight is arriving before the concert. Selznick is terrified to go onstage again, and as an audience participant in a thriller, this couldn’t have been a better set up to give me immediate anxiety and empathy for our lead. Most of us aren’t master pianists, but all of us know that sense of dread. Maybe it is a looming deadline or a hard conversation on the horizon, but we all know Tom Selznick’s fear. Wood’s performance endears us to an extremely talented man who may have some tricks up his sleeve and some secrets as well. It is a fabulously efficient first act.

So once the real conspiracy kicks in, you are already rooting for the lead and hanging off the edge of your seat. And then the music begins. Victor Reyes has composed an incredible score that is integral to this film. Being that the movie takes place almost entirely during a concert, the music had to be a character in the film or the whole thing would fail. Actually, just about every ingredient of this tightly wound thriller needed to work or it would fail… which is precisely why I’m so pleased that it worked. But I digress, the music in this film is wonderful.

Even with great music and a fabulous set up, how do you keep the audience engaged in a thriller set almost entirely inside of one concert hall? That is where director Mira, cinematographer Unax Mendia, and editor Jose Luis Romeu step in to bring you their “A” game. And when I say “A” game, I mean their Brian De Palma homage game. And they have as much fun playing that game as we have watching it. Grand Piano is the kind of film in which certain shots have the power to make you cheer. There is one De Palma-esque split screen shot… that I simply can’t do justice with words. But you’ll know it when you see it, and you’ll smile. The camera work and editing are assured, bold, and inject flourishes of humor and style throughout.

You’ve seen films like this before, from Johnny Depp’s Nick Of Time (1995) to Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2002), and Grand Piano succeeds in most of the places where those films failed. Even Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) played with the “real time” thriller story convention, but I’m going to say that yes, Grand Piano takes all the lessons one can learn from Hitchcock and uses them to play with real time in a more successful way than even Rope did. That isn’t to say this is better film than Rope. Apples and oranges, really. But the fact that I’m even referencing Hitchcock and De Palma when discussing Eugenio Mira’s rip roaring thriller Grand Piano should give you an idea of how highly I regard this film.

And I’m Out.

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