Based on the novel by Southern writer Clyde Edgerton, Killer Diller follows a young musician/convict who is released from jail to a halfway house with a religious bent, Back on Track Again House. While there, the criminal, Wesley Benfield, is drawn toward the House band, which performs hymns unenthusiastically. The wheels in Benfield's mind turn as he sees a way to turn the raw meat of the band into the tight blues band he always wanted to play in.
William Lee Scott plays Benfield, bad-boy car thief with a heart of gold and killer-diller blues guitarist. As written, Benfield is a brash young man who has -- interjecting through the insolence -- a thoughtful, sensitive side, his painful past giving way to joy when he has a guitar in his hand and a tune worth playing in his heart.
Lucas Black co-stars as Vernon Jackson, the high-functioning autistic boy in town whom Benfield uses -- and then befriends -- after discovering his prodigious ability as a boogie-woogie piano player. Black is a fine young actor who has created a niche for himself in the film industry as a Southern character actor, like a Red West but with more leading-man capabilities. Black brings a manic energy to Vernon that occasionally veers into overacting, not a surprising outcome considering the character description. He is nevertheless serviceable enough not to harm the movie.
The script treatment for Killer Diller was probably really good. As it is, however, the movie is a mess of half-developed plot points, ideas, and characters. The kernel of so many fine things exist here: the line between gospel and the blues where God and the devil dance, the role of fathers and mentors in the lives of young men, and the juxtaposition of religious-school coeds grinding at the juke joint on Saturday night and primly attending school functions with their parents the next day. But Killer Diller does next to nothing with these ideas, instead focusing on the empty-headed trajectory of an unlikable lead character punctuated by a few meager stabs at emotional immediacy.
Worst of all, though, is the actual blues in Killer Diller. Black is somewhat convincing as a piano genius, and some other members of Benfield's blues band are even genuinely good. Scott, though, looks uncomfortable with a guitar in his hand and is worse when he sings. His songs, including one painfully gaudy Furry Lewis cover, are inelegant and pedestrian, only marginally more interesting than the hymns so derided earlier in the film. Seemingly aware of this, the film doesn't offer much real-world recorded blues to which the audience might compare the band's music. In a movie where the blues on display is supposed to be the highest and truest expression of its characters' emotions, the only thing you're left with is a longing for the genuine article.