At the last Sundance Film Festival Damien Chazelle’s debut feature, “Whiplash,” a psychodrama about the relationship between a sadistic music teacher and his terrorized student, dazzled critics. (I’ve only seen the short it was based on, but if the full-length version has a fraction of its intensity, the praise is well earned.) He draws on a similar dynamic in the screenplay for “Grand Piano,’’ a thriller directed by Eugenio Mira. And though Mira shows skill at evoking mood and building tension despite the constrained circumstances of the premise, the narrative quickly and embarrassingly breaks down.
It’s much like the breakdown that had occurred to the film’s protagonist, world renowned pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), when five years previously he attempted to play in concert the most difficult piano piece in the world, “La Cinquette,” by his late mentor, Patrick Godureaux. He failed miserably. Humiliated, he retired from playing in public for five years, until lured back to the concert hall once again as a tribute to Godureaux, performing on the great man’s own grand piano.
Slick with flop sweat, resigned to failure despite the reassurance of his movie star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), Selznick shuffles up to the keyboard and opens the score. All goes well, until a few pages in, as if he didn’t have reason enough to be nervous, someone has scrawled in red, “Play one wrong note and you die!” Then Selznick notices the red dot from the laser scope of a sniper rifle and realizes it’s no joke.
This happens barely a third of the way through the film, so in lieu of an hour of a perspiring, frantic Wood hammering the keyboard playing soundtrack composer Víctor Reyes’s faux classical music, Chazelle and Mira attempt to make things a little less stagey. From time to time, sometimes prompted by his mystery tormentor (could it be Godureaux himself, chastising his disappointing student from the beyond?), Selznick jumps up and dashes off stage, disconcerting onlookers and adding to the incredulity of those watching the film. He returns from one such trip with his cellphone, and somehow manages to contact a friend in the audience while whipping through a particularly difficult passage for a comic effect that may be intentional. The call goes through but . . . let’s just say it’s always best to shut off all electronic devices before a performance begins, and not just as a courtesy to others.
Though critics have made comparisons ranging from such Hitchcock films as “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (there are also gratuitous allusions to “Citizen Kane”) to Joel Schumacher’s “Phone Booth” (2002), “Grand Piano” most resembles last year’s “Getaway,” with a Bosendorfer Imperial grand piano taking the place of the Shelby Super Snake Mustang driven by Ethan Hawke. That was a dumb movie without pretensions; “Grand Piano” is an ambitious effort that plays dumb.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.