Judge Russell Engebretson used to play the suburban blues on ukulele, but gave it up for paper and comb tangos.
Trouble brought them together. Music set them free.
An autistic savant who is a musical genius turns out to be much more entertaining than an autistic savant who can instantly calculate the exact number of straws spilled on a floor.
Facts of the Case
Young car thief Wesley Benfield (William Lee Scott, The Butterfly Effect) is sentenced to a halfway house in Missouri, the Ballard Baptist College, in what will be his last chance at rehabilitation. If he backslides into his previous larcenous ways, his next stop will be the penitentiary. Wesley is conscripted into a church band with some fellow parolees, condemned to strum dull sacred music on his guitar as spiritual therapy, until one day during a gig at the local mental institution he spies Vernon (Lucas Black), a piano playing autistic savant who tickles the ivories like a young Jerry Lee Lewis. Wesley knows that this amazing pianist could be the band's salvation.
Getting Vernon into the band, however, will not be a simple task. Wesley must convince Vernon's widowed daddy (W. Earl Brown, Deadwood), who loathes "bible thumpers" and is soured on life in general, to give Vernon permission to play with the group.
Daddy's forged signature gains Vernon a spot in what will become the Killer Diller Blues Band, but at what cost to Wesley who has a local policewoman hovering in the wings just aching to drag him off to the slammer?
Killer Diller, from a script by Tricia Brock loosely based on a Clyde Edgerton novel, is an affable, sentimental movie, a light drama with a generous helping of deadpan humor. Several hard driving blues numbers help to propel the slightly quirky story on its way.
Shanita Scott (Niki Crawford) is the band's lead singer, and Crawford does a fine job of kicking out the jambs with her own intensely soulful and funky vocals. The real guitarist (Tree Adams) and piano player (Jeff Babko), both consummate pros, provide the musical backbone that allows Crawford's voice to soar. The music by itself makes the movie a joy to watch, but there is more going on here than a series of tunes. The characters are paramount, and the music—wonderful as it is—still is only a backdrop to the story.
All the actors deliver solid, natural performances. The sibling rivalry between the two Baptist preachers who run the college is fully believable, and gives us a sneakily satirical commentary on organized religion that's—well, not too preachy. Vernon's dad—the embittered auto mechanic who has let his life go to hell since his wife died, yet still loves his mentally impaired son dearly—is pitch perfect. Wesley Benfield as the straight man to goofball Lucas Black is an inspired pairing. The acting is high caliber without a single big-name celebrity in sight.
Killer Diller was directed by Tricia Brock and shot by Matthew Jensen in a refreshingly straight-forward style. The audience has ample time to take in the scenery; the camera lingers on the actors' expressions and body movements, and tracks the action with a serene gracefulness that is the antithesis of the herky-jerky, flash cut school of editing and filmmaking. It's a delight to watch a movie that, rather than drawing attention to itself with a bag of tricks, allows the viewer to linger on the scene for longer than a few milliseconds. I would like to see more features from Ms Brock, who is now directing on television.
There are no extras, unless you count a few trailers. The picture is what one would expect (but does not always get) from a well-authored DVD transfer of a modern film; solid colors, decent contrast, and a minimum of motion artifacts. Unfortunately, the only audio option is a bare bones Dolby stereo track. DTS audio would have been great for such a musically oriented movie, but I suppose an unlikely option considering the budget constraints of an independent picture.
It's discouraging that such a fine movie took so long to come to DVD—over three years after its theatrical release—while a glut of wretched Hollywood blockbusters weigh down the store shelves. And although the film shares some elements of a Hollywood potboiler (a sweet movie with a predictable story arc), there's an edgy sadness submerged not too far beneath the film's shiny, happy surface.
Killer Diller is slick, but not too slick. It's a feel-good independent film minus manipulative sentimentality, filled with soulful, toe-tapping blues numbers. Most important of all, it has characters you can give a damn about.
Cast, crew, and extras are only guilty of rockin' the joint. You're all free to go forth and boogie.
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