"'Speed' on a piano" is what Spanish genre stylist Eugenio Mira's third feature "Grand Piano" has irresistib been dubbed in festival circles -- and true enough, this appealingly absurd thriller finds a prodigious pianist (Elijah Wood) quite literally playing for his life, as an unseen gunman threatens to pull the trigger at the first missed note. The execution, however, is akin to a less kinked-out Brian De Palma potboiler, with Mira's swooping, playful technique as intricate as the protagonist's arpeggios. "Piano" goes disappointingly off-key in its second half, once the assassin's rather banal agenda is revealed, but not enough to quell word of mouth among irony-attuned midnight-movie buffs. Magnet Releasing has U.S. rights; the pic should make its sweetest music in ancillary.
The presence of the erstwhile Frodo Baggins -- currently the go-to American star for European genre-crossover directors -- may lead auds to expect something as virulently nasty as last year's "Maniac" remake, but "Grand Piano" oozes a very different flavor of B-movie cheese. Setting out to tickle viewers rather than terrorize them, this not-quite-horror film is refreshingly blood-shy even in bloodshed, preferring to let the scarlet soft furnishings of a plush Chicago concert hall provide the red menace.
Selznick's history of stage fright is a necessary backstory detail. With the pianist already on edge as he arrives for the concert, with his movie-star wife (Kerry Bishe) inadvertently adding pressure from the sidelines, it initially seems entirely plausible that the mysterious death threats he finds scrawled on his sheet music are his own paranoid hallucinations. Ditto the throaty voice (John Cusack, in appropriate ham-for-hire mode) that begins echoing those threats in his ear once he starts playing, or even the red sniper's beam he sees trained on his person. In a potentially Gothic twist, the piano he's playing is a spooky relic once owned by his deranged, deceased mentor, Godureaux, who also composed the fiendishly difficult piece that has previously proven Selznick's stumbling block. Is this some manner of beyond-the-grave vengeance?
Mira has considerable fun teasing out these possibilities, as Unax Mendia's fleet, mobile camera moves and Jose Luis Romeu's fidgety editing play with the limitations of the protag's perspective -- and sometimes showily subvert them, as with a headlong dive into the innards of the potentially possessed piano. Damien Chazelle's good-humored script can't quite stick to the minimalist conceit of having the pianist negotiate the entire situation from his bench: His frequent dashes from the stage are played for effectively frantic farce, though he also has an impressive knack for emergency texting while playing.
Alas, the reveal is something of an anticlimax, positioning Selznick as a mere pawn in a complicated (and wholly irrelevant) financial heist, and the air escapes all too quickly from this lightheaded premise. Still, the director isn't entirely done with the wink-wink foolery: Not many other films will give you hand-to-hand combat on stage rigging, to a mournful soundtrack of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."
Tech credits on the mostly Spanish-shot production are uniformly pro. Production designer Javier Alvarino's velvet-draped, modernist concert-hall interior sets just the right lurid tone for the hijinks it houses, while Victor Reyes' score -- incorporating originals and furious arrangements of existing pieces by Beethoven and others -- is, needless to say, a relentless asset.