Review: Elijah Wood plays rough in the fiendishly fun thriller ‘Grand Piano’

If you saw Eugenio Mira's earlier film “Agnosia,” then you may have already noticed his fondness for Brian De Palma. Anyone making thrillers who holds De Palma as part of the pantheon is already on my short list of people I like, but when you see how well Mira pulls it all together for “Grand Piano,” it's obvious that he's graduated to a different level with this film.

I think it's very fair to compare this to “Non-Stop,” which I reviewed earlier today, since both of them are thrillers that take place over a compressed period of time in a fairly restrictive setting with a ticking clock. For both filmmakers, the exercise is the same. Can you keep the film somewhat plausible while ratcheting up the tension and convincing us that things could unfold like this? In the case of “Grand Piano,” the answer is a resounding yes, and I was delighted by just how playful and fun this is.

As the film opens, Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is preparing for a comeback concert after several years out of the public eye. His last time on stage, he blew it playing what has been called “the unplayable piece,” and it shattered his confidence in his own ability to play. His wife Emma (Kerry Bishe) is a famous actress, and it is in honor of her that Tom finally makes an effort to beat his fears, agreeing to appear at an evening conducted by Reisinger (Don McManus), an old friend.

All of the set-up is handled with panache, and from the very start, Mira is doing it big and bold. There's not a subtle moment in “Grand Piano,” nor should there be. This is a film where Tom turns a page of sheet music as he plays and finds a note there that tells him that if he plays one wrong note during the concert, he will be killed. Talk about an impossible situation. Each narrative issue that might suggest itself immediately is handled with grace and a sense of humor. How can Tom be in contact with the killer during the concert? How can Tom start to piece together what's happening to him and why? Why does the mysterious villain want Tom to play this one particular piece of music and why is it so important that he can't miss a note? If the movie fumbles the answers to any of those questions, then the audience loses the ability to buy into it.

Elijah Wood is a fascinating actor at this point in his career. When you have an experience like “Lord Of The Rings,” especially at the point in his life when he did, it opens up a whole world of possibilities, but it also puts you in a potential box. It is very easy for someone to get boxed in, and it's not like Elijah is Joe Everyman. He has become a striking man, sleek, and he seems equally adept at playing comedy and drama. When he makes a film like “Maniac,” it's because that is material that he loves, and there are no half-measures in the way he attacks a role, and he's made the transition from being a famous kid to being an adult whose body of work reflects the eclectic tastes he has. He expertly charts the way Tom responds to the increase of the pressure cooker tension, and there is a level of technical skill to the way he handles the actual act of playing the piano that is just plain fun to watch.

Bishe, McManus, Dee Wallace, Alex Winter, and other cast members you might not want to know ahead of time all do very strong work, all of them in on the same joke. There are technical flourishes by Mira and his cinematographer Unax Mendia that made me cackle. The fun of making a film like this is the gamesmanship, the way you play to and against expectation, the pure sheen of it. Victor Reyes, the film's composer, plays a crucial part for obvious reasons, and the film has a lovely pulse, a really strong sense of play between the score and the visuals, and Jose Luis Romeu's work as editor is the glue that brings all these guys working so well into the final polished gem that it is.

“Grand Piano” is not a movie that has a larger message to convey. There are plenty of genre efforts that I think have more to say than you see on the surface, and when they work, they can be amazing. But sometimes, what you want is a very pure hit, a thriller that does exactly what it promises and that executes it with not an ounce of fat. Another early film by Mira, “The Birthday,” played with another almost-real-time story about a guy going to his girlfriend's father's birthday party. It does not go well. Mira has a knack for playing this particular type of game. I bet he would have totally crushed it with “Panic Room.” I think Mira's a guy people should pay attention to, because the sheer sly joy of the filmmaking that is on display here is one of the reasons I go to movies.

“Grand Piano” is available now on VOD, and opens March 7 in theaters.