After an entirely passive credits sequence that seems to last as long as Beethoven’s ninth, we learn that Tom Selznick (Wood) is a first-class pianist – but hasn’t performed live for years, thanks to fluffing a devilishly difficult piece in front of the world’s musical elite. For five years, the performance has haunted him, but he’s reluctantly agreed – largely thanks to his wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé) – to play a brand new concert. But as Selznick begins to tinkle his keys, he discovers a string of blood-red messages in his notation, largely encouraging him to continue playing while listening to a cryptic voice via ear bud. That voice asserts that if he stops, for one second, he will be shot – or perhaps his beloved wife – in the middle of the crowded concert.
The absurdity only continues to swell from there. Selznick’s would-be assassin, Clem, is another brilliant turn from John Cusack, who – like Wood – has forged himself a bit of a niche in genre cinema, and he only continues to excel as the maniacal mastermind who has the theatrical nerve to stage a heist during a classical concert. The conceit and its execution are inarguably operatic, but under director Eugenio Mira’s tight grip, the film never loses itself to pretense, and keeps itself on just the right side of unintentional hilarity. Just the right side, of course; Grand Piano’s odd tone, which occupies the mystical space between shock and shlock, is one that doesn’t feel like it comes entirely naturally, but is circumstantial – essentially, the movie is too bonkers for its own good. Which is almost always a good thing, and certain moments – the best involving a knife and a cello – pave the way toward the Cult altar. But although the screenplay deftly interweaves its gloriously crazed plots for the meat of Grand Piano, the film is curiously bookended by two languorous scenes; an introduction in which we learn nothing about characters who will ultimately mean nothing, dead or alive, and a coda which lifts what should have been a perfect cut-to-black rug pull for a faux-existential anticlimax. To push the musical puns even further, the movie sometimes plays a few bars too many.
When Grand Piano is in full-swing fortissimo, it approaches something resembling a midnight movie classic; a popcorn-slinging flight of fancy, played in the dark. And with a frenzied Wood at the churning centre of the blood-streaked nonsense, anime veins on his temple and with motion blurs for fingers, it’s all given a bizarre sheen of credibility. It’s difficult to imagine it in any setting other than a packed screen in an independent cinema, where it’s the conductor of the real symphony; an appreciative audience, screaming and laughing along. It’s up to you to decide to follow its tune, or to plug up your ears.