A review of “Wonderland” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for intense violence and language

Run Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

 

 

From “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “Kill Bill”, blood-and-guts appear to be fall’s cinematic trend. “Wonderland” manages to move beyond its bloody rage by spinning a complex narrative that’s one of the year’s most compelling stories.

The 1981 Wonderland Avenue murders are an enduring chapter of B-Hollywood mythology.  The grisly deaths of four individuals in Laurel Canyon are inexorably linked to the rise and fall of porn king John Holmes (Val Kilmer), reputed to have completed 1,000 adult films and slept with over 14,000 women. 

Washed-up and scavenging from hit-to-hit, Holmes (Val Kilmer) is living on the fringe, hooking his fading star to a number of shady dealers and underworld scumbags. A high-profile friendship with sleazy crime boss/pusher Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian) sinks Holmes into debt to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars.

Attempting to keep himself in the good graces of his low-life playmates, Holmes tips them off to the ripe-for-the-picking bounty at Nash’s swanky home.  The hoods take the bait, Nash gets wind of the fink, and the rest is history.

In “Rashomon”-like fashion, Holmes and his cohorts, including Sacramento slime-ball David Lind (Dylan McDermott), are persuaded to relive the grisly events of Wonderland Avenue. Told from several perspectives, the story is alternatively horrifying and utterly mesmerizing; a tabloid sensation of sex, guns, gore and illegal substances.

“Wonderland” is reminiscent of a John Sayles project – sharp, taut, and saturated in the erratic vagaries of humanity.  Writer/director James Cox’s screenplay is a never-a-dull-moment winner, brimming with character and tension. Split screen and other catchy techniques add to, but do not detract from, the beguiling narrative.

Kilmer offers up a career-best performance, set loose from the confines of his stereotypical drugged-out whack-job. Wallowing in carte blanche of low self-esteem and confusion, the pain of his crumpling ego is palpable.  Josh Lucas sheds his aw-shucks persona by channeling crazed firearms collector Ron Launius with gusto. Kate Bosworth as main squeeze Dawn Schiller is awash in lovely innocence, and emblematic of John’s tender side.

Opening credits flicker with snippets of Holmes’ blue movies to the tune of Bad Company’s “Shooting Star”.  Start to finish “Wonderland” is first-rate.