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THRILLERS TEND TO HAVE SOME RIDICULOUS ideas. These are stories about the darkest parts of human nature, where evil needs to be pure and simple, without rational or complicated characterization. The thriller is made by the villain—the protagonist has to be hopelessly outmatched, reacting to a well-planned, psychopathic evil with no emotion, no sympathy, and no remorse.
Motivations don’t matter in any real sense. The audience doesn’t care that much if the villain wants to steal money, get revenge on a past injustice, or demand the release of a prisoner. What they want is to witness the drama that happens as the victims slowly and deliberately unravel the Machiavellian traps laid by an unseen, shadowy adversary.
In what might be my favorite Mise En Scenesters offering so far, “Grand Piano” is an example of the best kind of thriller. It’s relatively senseless, easily picked apart, but at the same time just simply works. It’s a genre film that loves the genre; one that isn’t interested in explaining or providing needless exposition. It exists in its world without question or pause.
Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a world-famous concert pianist who is returning to the stage after a long absence, having developed an acute case of stage fright. Years prior, Tom had some sort of real or imagined disaster while performing a piece, causing him to hide from the spotlight and shy away from any performances.
But now a concert in honor of his former teacher, a master of piano composition, draws Tom back in order to play once more. And as he begins his performance, in front of a packed Chicago concert hall, he notices a note written in red pen on his score: “miss one note, and you die.” What follows are tense, expertly crafted scenes of terror, as Tom learns the goals and identity of his antagonist while playing difficult parts during the movements of the accompanying symphony orchestra. He must play the “Impossible Piece” flawlessly if he hopes to save his own life and the life of his wife, who watches oblivious in the audience.
The idea is completely absurd, especially given the ultimate goal of the aggressor, a sniper known only as Clem (John Cusack.) There are much easier ways for Clem to get what he wants. But that wouldn’t be any fun. The performances by both Cusack and Wood are what make the film work so well.
They are the reason we buy into the plot. Their commitment to the story, despite the silliness, allows us to suspend our disbelief just enough to make the film worth our time. Of course, it’s beautifully shot, showing us the loneliness that exists on stage by using open spaces and wide angles. Tom is alone in a room full of musicians and spectators. He has no line to the outside world—any strange behavior is easily attributed to his stage fright.
The audience is watching as much to see him fall apart on stage as they are to hear his comeback concert. Their excitement is rooted in the potential for disaster. Ours comes from knowing just how disastrous it might be.
Nothing adds tension like classical music, and the musical score makes the film all the more entertaining. My biggest complaint with the film is also the most nitpicky. Having grown up in a house with a classically trained pianist, seeing a master piano player never once touch the sustain pedal despite hearing powerful ringing chords had a tendency to take me out of the film. Wood’s fingers move deftly over the keyboard and had he used the pedals once or twice, I might have been foolish enough to think that he wasn’t acting. Alas, the devil is in the details.
“Grand Piano” will be screened at 8:30 p.m. at Barking Legs Theater on March 22. MES continues to be one of Chattanooga’s best resources for film, bringing great movies that would never be seen at the Majestic or the East Ridge 18.
Soon enough, we’ll have our own art house movie theater, and film enthusiasts will have more than one opportunity to see films that are off the beaten path. Until then, support MES.
Saturday, March 22, 8:30 p.m.
Barking Legs Theater
1307 Dodds Ave.