Well, if this isn't the kindest, gentlest, downright cleanest example of the blues I've ever encountered.
Tricia Brock's "Killer Diller" - no relation to the 1948 musical of the same name - is a gentle tale of barely-criminal criminals who find themselves in a halfway house run by a conservative Christian college; as part of their community service, the residents are required to join a band that plays hymns at old folks homes. One of the convicts, the guitar playin', car stealin', barroom brawl startin' Wesley (William Lee Scott), can't handle the white-bread approach to music, so imagine his joy when he stumbles upon Vernon (Lucas Black), an autistic kid who rocks out on the piano and is eager to sit in with the band.
Loosely adapted from the novel by Clyde Edgerton (who penned the story as a sequel to his "Walking Across Egypt"), this film is downright lazy in its half-baked approach to feel-good melodramatics. In her attempts to strip the tale to its bare essentials, writer/director Brock takes away too much, leaving too many storytelling shortcuts. Her movie is riddled with conflict that exists for no reason, with no logic, only to disappear all too quickly. Consider: Vernon is asked to join the band, but his father (W. Earl Brown) says no. There is no excuse given for the father's decision, no explanation for his reluctance to see his son enjoy the companionship of others (something the rest of the film seems to indicate the father would in fact want). The refusal, and the obligatory sneak-out-without-permission scenes that follow, exist only for quick, cheap conflict. Later, the movie just sort of forgets the conflict was ever there.
Throughout, Brock is eager to hit all the notes of an inspirational musical without dealing with that pesky story that fills in the gaps. Introductions are light and swift, and decisions seem to be made on the fly. When Wesley wants the band to play kickin' blues tunes, it's just a blink of the script before everyone's jamming to an up-tempo arrangement.. Everything that follows comes in bullet-point fashion: they're a hit on the radio; they're a hit at the local bar; they're a hit in the community. The movie never pauses to show us how they got so good. It just shows them suddenly being good, and we're asked to tune in to our understanding of the genre to fill in the gaps ourselves.
When Brock does try to flesh things out, she tosses us quirky material that never rings true. Vernon is an autistic kid who's merely a collection of kooky character traits. He pretends to drive an invisible car, he always has to pee at inopportune times, he freaks out if anyone mentions that he's jittery. Elsewhere, there's a subplot about the rivalry between the manager of the home (Fred Willard) and his brother (John Michael Higgins), who runs the fat camp across the street; this is a weird, go-nowhere storyline that ultimately exists for more of that easy conflict (which once again crumbles all too easily, as if Brock was afraid to put too much tension into the film).
It's all so shallow, with barely any meat to the central story of Wesley's rehabilitation and his growing friendship with Vernon. We're given too little in terms of the past, and even less in terms of the present. It's a script that sends its characters through the motions but offers no support for their actions. How can we feel good about their success if we never see them earn it?
As for the music, it's mostly a dud, competently performed but too soulless. Aside from Vernon's piano chops, there's never a sense that anyone can actually play their instruments with notable skill (Wesley, especially, should be a spotlight, but whenever he picks up his guitar, we never care; worse, Scott is unconvincing in the role of the rocker), and never does the idea of Sunday school tunes played to a faster beat actually get the toes tapping. As a cheat, Brock hauls in blues legend Taj Mahal to open and close the film; solo shots of him wailing away have nothing to do with the story (unless you buy the flimsy notion of him being a friend of Wesley), and his awesome performances are unable to lift the rest of the movie. After all, how rockin' can a band be when their leader is Fred Willard?
Video & Audio
"Killer Diller" looks and sounds adequate enough in this anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, which makes the most of the film's low budget look. Colors are solid, the image is crisp, grain is minimal. The soundtrack is presented in a decent Dolby 2.0, which doesn't really give the music a chance to shine, although it doesn't smother it, either. No subtitles are included.
None, except for a set of previews that plays as the disc loads.
"Killer Diller" wants to inspire, but it doesn't want to do the work take get the audience there. Skip It.