Alex Winter, Alfred Hitchcock, Allen Leech, Best of 2013, cinema, classical music, Damien Chazelle, Dee Wallace, Don McManus, Elijah Wood, Eugenio Mira, favorite films, Film, film festival favorite, film reviews, Grand Piano, Hitchcock films, John Cusack, Kerry Bishe, Movies, mystery, pianist, piano, sniper, split-screen, suspense, Tamsin Egerton, thriller, Timecrimes, Tom Selznick
Whenever I think about suspense films, there’s always one name that’s on the tip of my brain: Alfred Hitchcock. It should go without saying that Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors to ever walk this planet, a master craftsman who was probably only equalled by fellow artisans like Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman. For my money, however, ol’ Hitch is also the greatest director of suspense films, hands down. Hitchcock films are perfectly wound, intricate clockwork puzzles, designed for maximum audience reaction and as close to perfect examples of sustained/released tension as I think it’s possible to create. His method of operation is best described by his famous example of the difference between “surprise” and suspense.” To paraphrase: if two people are sitting at a cafe table and suddenly blow up, that’s surprise…if the audience sees that there’s a bomb underneath the table but the characters don’t, however, that’s suspense. In one instance, you get the momentary shock of surprise, which is a fleeting rush. On the other hand, however, you can continue to build tension, dragging out the scene until the audience is practically screaming at the screen: this is a longer process and requires more patience but the payoff, ultimately, is that much greater. Hitchcock was practically peerless in letting audiences stew in their own juices.
Hitchcock, obviously, was a pretty one-of-a-kind filmmaker, a true auteur. Despite this indisputable fact, however, why would I begin a review of Eugenio Mira’s extraordinary new film, Grand Piano (2013), with a bunch of praise for an unrelated filmmaker who died when Mira was all of three years old? Regardless of how extraordinary I find Hitchcock to be, how much could he actually have to do with Mira’s film? Let’s put it this way: Hitchcock may not have had anything to do with Grand Piano but his fingerprints, style and sense of humor are all over the film. In many ways, Grand Piano is one of the very best films that ol’ Hitch never made, a meticulously crafted, unbelievably tense and remarkably plotted work of art that showcases a pair of actors at the top of their craft and gives audiences one completely unforgettable thrill ride. I’d heard good things about the film before going in but this was one situation where the hype should have been a whole lot louder.
Master pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) has come out of a five-year retirement in order to perform for a packed audience that includes his adoring, extremely famous actress spouse, Emma (Kerry Bishe). Tom quit the business after screwing up a complicated piece, humiliated by his public miscue. He’s here tonight, however, and playing his dead mentor’s priceless grand piano: the smell of redemption is in the air and Tom is feeling pretty great. As he turns the page on his sheet music, however, he comes across an ominous declaration, written in red across the page: “Play one wrong note and you die.” Subsequent notes lead him to understand that a mysterious sniper has both Tom and his wife in his sights and won’t hesitate to shoot them if Tom makes any mistakes. After being directed to grab an earpiece from his dressing room, Tom is finally in vocal contact with the mysterious man (John Cusack). The rules are simple: make one mistake, say one thing, try to attract attention in any way at all or disobey a single order…and Tom’s a dead man. But the show must go on: Tom’s audience may be captivated but he’s a captive and will do whatever it takes to get out.
Grand Piano takes an extremely simple, if ludicrous, premise (concert pianist held captive by sniper during live performance) and manages to turn it into one of the thorniest, wildest, most wonderful and flat-out impressive films I’ve ever seen. No joke: the film is an instant classic and, were it not for the prevalence and necessity of modern technology like cell phones, would seem almost timeless. Chalk that up to a few different things. On one hand, you have an outstanding lead duo with Elijah Wood and John Cusack: the two have more chemistry as adversaries than most romantic pairings I’ve seen lately. Wood has been on a bit of a career renaissance of late, with his performance in Franck Khalfoun’s outstanding Maniac (2012) being a particular highlight. His performance as Tom is just as good, although much more restrained (obviously). If anything, he definitely brought to mind the hassled heroism of someone like James Stewart, driving home that whole Hitchcock connection. Cusack has also been shying away from the roles that made him a mega-star in the ’80s and ’90s, becoming a bit of a brooding hero/anti-hero in film’s as diverse as Lee Daniels The Paperboy (2012), The Factory (2012), The Numbers Station (2013), Adult World (2013), The Frozen Ground (2013) and The Bag Man (2014). His performance as Clem is one of his very best “bad guy” roles, easily the equal of his work as the villainous Robert Hansen in The Frozen Ground. Cusack has the doubly-difficult task of being able to use only his voice for the vast majority of the film: it’s to his great credit that every slimy aspect of Clem comes through the earpiece loud and clear, without the benefits of body language or facial expression. Quite simply, Wood and Cusack are extraordinary in the film, each one so perfectly cast that it, again, reminds one of Hitchcock’s meticulous way with his actors.
Despite the film’s remarkably small, intimate set-up, it’s far from a two-man show. More than able support comes in the form of Kerry Bishe, whose Emma manages to seem fully actualized with a rather minimal amount of screentime. Also impressive are Tamsin Egerton, as Emma’s brash sister Ashley, and Alan Leech, as Ashley’s boyfriend Wayne. The duo add quite a bit of genuine humor to the film, as well as some surprising pathos, later on. They aren’t big roles, by any stretch of the term, but they are exceptionally important roles: there are no throwaway pieces in Mira’s intricate jigsaw puzzle of a film. Every actor, just like every camera angle and line of dialogue, is perfectly calibrated to offer maximum impact. One of the neatest touches? Bill and Ted’s Alex Winters as the assistant. As always, it makes me wish he acted more often, since it’s a perfectly nuanced performance. Even a seemingly disposable role like the janitor who shakes his head disapprovingly at Tom is given considerable class when played by a veteran character actor like Jim Arnold: it’s a great touch that really speaks to a rock-solid cast.
Not only is Grand Piano exquisitely cast, however, but it’s immaculately crafted, possessing some truly gorgeous cinematography and an excellent sound design that seems tailor-made for amps that go to 11. I’ve driven home the Hitchcock references time and time again but I’ll hammer it one more time: quite simply, Grand Piano looks like one of Hitchcock’s classic films. There’s a richness of image and color, a vibrancy and life that instantly recalls the Golden Age of Hollywood. As enamored as I was with the story, it would have been impossible to tear my eyes from the screen, regardless, thanks to how great everything looked. There’s one moment in the film where a shot organically becomes a split screen: I’m not quite sure how it’s done but I do know that it’s audacious, eye-catching and completely badass. It’s the kind of moment that makes films so much fun and Grand Piano is full of them.
Truth be told, Grand Piano really knocked my socks off. By the time the film revs up to full speed, it’s absolutely unstoppable, one fist-raising moment after another. It’s no hyperbole to say that I was on the edge of my seat the whole time because I literally was: it would have been impossible for me to sit back if I tried. Like the best of Hitchcock’s films, Grand Piano is imminently watchable, a 90 minute thrill-ride that feels like 45. Not only is Grand Piano tense and thrilling, however, but it’s also whip-smart: this is not the typical “dumb people do dumb things to advance the plot” film. This is much closer to an intricately plotted heist film, where every little detail and tidbit is part of the scheme, every throw-away factoid is actually a clue to the bigger picture. Regardless of how initially ridiculous any one set-piece in Grand Piano is (and there are some real corkers, let me tell ya), the movie handles everything with such a consistent sense of intelligence and rationality that I was inclined to believe all of it: why not?
I’ve tried to be as purposefully vague with plot details as possible so as to preserve as many of the film’s genuine surprises as I can: this is a film that will surprise you, time and again, so the less known, the better. The only things that you really need to know are that Grand Piano is an astounding film, Eugenio Mira is absolutely a director to keep an eye on and that you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a blast while watching. I don’t pretend to speak for Alfred Hitchcock in any way, shape or form but I’m pretty sure that Hitch would give this his seal of approval. At the very least, he’d take one look at Eugenio Mira and say, “Now there’s a man who understands the difference between surprise and suspense.”