In the summer of 1981, a group of small time drug dealers were killed in a house on Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. So much is certain. As for the rest, the only people who seemed to know anything about the crime were a drug-addled biker, a woman beaten half to death and, most provocatively, a coked-up porn star famous for his fourteen inch penis and inability to cope in the real world. From this piece of history springs Wonderland, one of the most gripping and intelligent films of the year. Quite apart from showcasing some of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time, this film works on a number of levels; as a mystery thriller about the evasive nature of absolute truth; as a blood and sun drenched evocation of a very specific time and place; as a blackly funny account of a community at the end of its tether; and as an insightful, oddly affecting character study of John Holmes, a man who brings a whole new set of meanings to the phrase ‘fucked-up’.
Much of the narrative is offered to us in flashback from two different perspectives, after the crime has taken place. We have already been introduced to John Holmes, played with brilliance by Val Kilmer, and he’s not a pretty sight, hair sprouting out of every part of his face, huge sunglasses threatening to put his face into eclipse as he drags along his teenage girlfriend Dawn (Bosworth, quite remarkably touching) with promises of a bigger and better future muttered in the middle of snatched sexual encounters and endless rounds of cocaine-smothered platitudes. However, we’re given two distinct renditions of his role in the crime and, by extension, his personality. On the one hand is the story of David Lind (an almost unrecognisably scuzzy McDermott), in which Holmes is in bed with sleazy Arab club-king Eddie Nash (Bogosian) and condemns his former friends in the Wonderland house because they won’t give him his cut after he’s arranged for them to mount a raid on Nash’s mirror-emblazoned empire. On the other, we get Holmes’ own account in which he is the not-so innocent but unwilling victim of a series of intimidations which led to his reluctant involvement in the murders. The film asks us to find our own way through this maze of evasions and self-justifications from two men who are equally unreliable. There’s naturally a metaphysical aspect to this as the film plays with notions of truth and perspective and it’s nice to see a relatively mainstream American movie which doesn’t insist on having everything cut and dried. Indeed, even at the end we’re left with severe doubts about who to believe and, as subsequent history tells us, the only people who came out of the whole thing with any kind of honour were Dawn and Holmes’ estranged wife Sharon (Kudrow). The climactic revelation of what might have been the truth is, incidentally, just as evasive as the other accounts and not, as has been suggested, the authoritative 'explanation'.
The ability of the director James Cox to juggle a good number of narrative balls without losing sight of the central themes is quite remarkable, although he does tend – particularly in the first half – to overdo the flashy editing and the kind of split screen which makes you remember how much the technique has always annoyed you. I’m not entirely sure why he does it, because the best moments in the film happen when he calms down and lets a scene play at its own rhythm. This isn’t an unusual problem of course and it’s another way – along with the John Holmes story – that the film resembles Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Like Anderson, Cox wants to show off and there’s nothing very wrong with that; it’s just that it gets a little wearisome after fifteen minutes of manic editing and shifts from colour to monochrome and so on.
Luckily, Cox gets one thing right on the nose and that’s the atmosphere of LA in the summer of 1981. It’s like some sun-lathered inferno of easy drugs and sex without consequences and, in view of the almost simultaneous advent of AIDS, perhaps the last night celebration before the lengthy morning after. The historical fact that John Holmes did actually die of AIDS adds a certain piquancy to this but the sense of fiddling while Rome is beginning to kindle is potent and sensuous. The people in the Wonderland house are described, at one point, as living as if the Summer of Love was still happening and that’s exactly what they remind us of; flower children who have discovered the profitability of the weeds gradually strangling them. Although these characters are somewhat sketchily defined in the script, strong performances make them believable with standout turns from Josh Lucas and Tim Blake Nelson – the latter being particularly impressive because he dispenses with those annoying rustic mannerisms which he’s worn down to the bone in film after film.
This story would be too intense to bear if it was done completely straightfaced so, luckily, Cox and his screenwriters have allowed a constant seam of absurdist comedy to keep bubbling to the surface. The opening scene is the most obvious example of this, as Dawn – sick and tired of John’s silly games – is picked up by a dreadfully sincere evangelical type played by Carrie Fisher. Needless to say, when John comes to pick her up, the couple can’t resist having a quick one in the good samaritan’s bathroom. The dialogue often has a fresh wit and surprise which catches you off-guard, particularly the dopehead conversations. The best one of these is actually in the deleted scenes when Janeane Garofalo muses on some deep and meaningful subtexts of the programme “Fantasy Island”.
But the heart of the film is the light it sheds on John Holmes, a man who would be tragic if he wasn’t so patently ridiculous. Unable to control himself or his appetites, hopeless with money, so difficult to work with that his porn career self-destructed, Holmes seemed to believe that he walked with a charmed circle around him which would protect him from the consequences of his actions. Just watch any interview with him and you’ll see the extent of his vanity and self-delusion. And yet.... vanity and self-delusion are neither capital crimes nor remotely uncommon and the achievement of the film is to give Holmes a measure of dignity that he doesn’t really deserve. This speaks volumes for Val Kilmer’s brave, complex performance. He seems to become Holmes so completely that the expected reference points in Kilmer’s earlier career – Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday – don’t seem to arise. We don’t need to shed any tears for Holmes, a manipulative bastard who was quite capable of fucking over people who loved him if it meant he came out on top. But Kilmer’s performance demonstrates that even the most unsympathetic of men can be worthy of our pity. Holmes is horribly messed-up from the start but the real sadness of the man – and I’m talking only in relative terms – is that he has no self-recognition and seems totally unaware that he’s destroying himself. In one scene, the finest in the film, he’s brought face to face with the farce he’s made of his life when, in a hotel bathroom, his wife tells him that she isn’t going to let him use her any longer. It’s a powerful, harrowing moment and superbly played by Kilmer and the excellent Lisa Kudrow and nothing else in the film quite matches it – although the final moments, set to the ironic strains of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”, do come close. Naturally, when faced with his wife telling him the truth about himself, Holmes can’t make a connection. He’s lost in his own monotonous sublime and his death, seven years later, seems in retrospect to be something of an afterthought. However, the film remembers to give due weight to the pain of Dawn, the teenager who was used shamelessly but never quite managed to fall out of love. Kate Bosworth’s beautifully understated performance is the obvious herald of great things to come and it’s a tribute to her portrayal that the final title about Dawn’s real-life fate is a truly uplifting moment.
Wonderland tries to do too much in some respects and the first half hour is so frenetic that it’s tempting to stop paying attention. But it’s an intelligent and carefully structured film that pays dividends and how enjoyable you find it will probably be in direct relation to how carefully you follow it. James Cox knows how to keep our attention without quite capitalising on his real skill which, on the evidence of the bathroom scene between Kilmer and Kudrow, is tightening the emotional screws to an unbearable degree. But this is still a remarkably effective film, packed with good things, and most impressively with a generosity towards the lost people of a time that paradoxically seems both all too recent and so long ago. Incidentally, if you needed another recommendation then it’s good to see a period movie which has actually bothered to find some unusual musical accompaniment, ranging from a great New Wave rip on Neil Diamond to the entirely appropriate “Big Shot”.
Although this DVD release from the ever improving Tartan isn’t a fully-fledged special edition, it’s a good presentation of the film and the extras which have been included are generally worthwhile.
The film is presented in an anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 ratio. It looks very good for the most part, although the range of filming styles tend to lead to a deliberately varied picture quality. What isn’t intentional is the artifacting which tends to appear in the rather wishy-washy blacks. However, the colours are rich and satisfying and there’s plenty of detail without the spectre of over-enhancement. Perhaps not as gob-smacking as you might expect for a recent film but certainly more than acceptable.
The soundtrack is largely stunning. The sound mix for the film is intended to create a wraparound sense of period with music and ambient effects sucking you into the time and place. This is best represented on the DTS 5.1 Surround track which has excellent fidelity and range but the 5.1 mix is excellent as well. The Dolby 2.0 track is less exciting but offers a solid presentation for the dialogue while somewhat neglecting the music.
Along with the somewhat overheated theatrical trailer and a collection of previews for other Tartan titles, we get two substantial bonus features. Firstly, there’s an excellent commentary from the director and one of his co-writers. They have some interesting and valuable comments to make on the film and provide some interesting information on both the historical background and the making of the movie – notably the somewhat surprising revelation that both Dawn and Sharon Holmes were present for some of the filming. James Cox is very enthusiastic about his actors and clearly regarded making the film as a labour of love with as fanatical a degree of period detail as you’ll find in any Merchant-Ivory production. Secondly, we get a collection of deleted scenes, all presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. Most of these simply amplify scenes which are in the finished film, but one of them – the aforementioned commentary on “Fantasy Island” - is utterly delightful and should have been retained, if only to give the great Janeane Garofalo something more to do. Picture quality is generally fine but there are occasional lines of dialogue which seem to be unlooped and are difficult to hear. All of the scenes are worth a look, although the last one is a bit of an obscure item. I was disappointed, however, that no commentary or contextualisation has been provided as to why they were dropped.
Disappointingly, Tartan have blotted their copybook by failing to supply subtitles for either the film or the special features. This is a serious failing and I hope to see them mending their ways in future.
Wonderland is a compelling and sometimes disturbing film which deserves more attention than it received on its brief theatrical run in the spring. Tartan’s DVD is a nice package which, apart from the lack of subtitles, is recommended.
Wonderland is released to buy from Tartan on the 27th September 2004.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:49:01