James Cox’s Wonderland hasn’t enjoyed the same sort of cult-status as Boogie Nights. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film of course was inspired by the late porn star John Holmes, his ascension, and ultimate fall from grace. In Cox’s case, his picture is all about Holmes’ fall, as it wraps itself up in false accounts and fabricated storylines as we, the audience, search for a modicum of truth.
That approach sounds like a turn-off until you realize how raw and realistic Cox and cowriters Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz, and D. Loriston Scott relay the story. The film revolves around the famous Wonderland murders, which occurred at 8763 Wonderland Avenue in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles on July 1st, 1981. In non-linear fashion, the film piecemeals the accounts of three key individuals — Holmes, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth), and David Lind (Dylan McDermott) — involved with the murders either directly or indirectly.
By the early 1980s, Holmes had faded from the eyes of the porn world, more motivated to find enough cash to afford his next hit. The film picks up after he’s left his wife, Sharon (Lisa Kudrow), and has taken a young junkie named Dawn on the road with him. After four members of a drug gang are savagely murdered in the aforementioned Wonderland Avenue home, Holmes is immediately a suspect, along with Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), a local night-club and drug mogul. Until they can get their hands on Holmes, the police only have David, one of the only survivors of the attack, and he’s as scummy as they come.
Cox and company essentially make us feel like detectives, devoting long stretches of the film to David’s account of events, sporadically cutting to Holmes and Dawn. According to David’s perspective, Holmes was taking advantage of the gang’s endless supply of heroin and coke while buddying up to Nash only to make screwing him over that much easier.
Val Kilmer embodies both the mystique and depravity of John Holmes, reveling in a life well lost to ego, drugs, reckless sex, and money. Holmes is a shell of his former self whether he wants to admit it or not, and Kilmer conveys that through sweaty, desperate pleas to everyone from Dawn to Sharon as each new day brings a new dilemma and more debt to pay back. Kate Bosworth’s comparatively quiet performance is bound to get lost in the shuffle, but she carries herself believably as a junkie manipulated by a large, domineering figure. The oft-underrated Eric Bogosian gives Wonderland its scariest performance. Eddie Nash might prefer to spend his evenings in a posh bathrobe, surrounded by women and blow, but he’s downright ruthless when he has the upper-hand which, outside of one scene, is the case for most of the film.
Michael Grady’s cinematography presents these events like a docudrama, with grainy filters and desaturated colors, which looks as if we’re leering on private events. Keeping things visually coherent — or as coherent as possible, rather — is Jeff McEvoy, stringing together clips and angles that create a staccato rhythm that show how certain situations can go from bad to worse at the drop of a hat. Wonderland‘s narrative style and unreliable accounts require some acclimation, but it rewards you with plenty of old school perversity, nerve-shredding violence, and sound performances.
James Cox’s film might as well be a metaphorical slap-in-the-face after how opulent this era looked in Boogie Nights. If that film was the high, this is the scary lull in between the ecstasy when the fuel for that feeling is out of reach.
NOTE: As of this writing, Wonderland is available to rent on a variety of streaming platforms.
Starring: Val KIlmer, Kate Bosworth, Dylan McDermott, Lisa Kudrow, Josh Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Tim Blake Nelson, Christina Applegate, Ted Levine, Faizon Love, M. C. Gainey, and Paris Hilton. Directed by: James Cox.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!