In the opening of “Wonderland,” a shaking, sobbing teenager named Dawn Schiller (played by Kate Bosworth) is jonesing on a crud-caked curb. A do-gooder named Sally Hansen (played by Carrie Fisher) picks up the strung-out girl, and transports her to the sanctuary of her own home far removed from Hollywood’s mean streets.
Oddly, this caring woman’s sense of crisis intervention doesn’t fit Dawn Schiller’s notion of rescue. But, a little later, when a Chevy muscle car screams to a halt in front of Hansen’s home, and Johnny “Wadd” Holmes – played by Val Kilmer – jumps out, Dawn’s instantly revived. Holmes slings a briefcase like a doctor’s bag.
Laying siege to the upstairs bathroom, Johnny breaks open a mountain of cocaine, dismantles the mirror from its cabinet, and in no time forges several snaky lines on its surface. Noisily inhaling with his ecstatic girlfriend, they rhapsodize about the score. Then, in celebration, the “king” straddles Schiller on the sink, sinking his legendary member right between the girl’s inviting thighs.
The outraged, intensely religious Hansen bangs open the door, screaming at top volume. The two cokehead lovers make their getaway.
This is how Dawn likes her rescues.
I lived in L.A. when the notoriously gruesome quadruple bludgeoning deaths of Ronald Launius, William Deverell, Barbara Richardson, and Joy Miller occurred. The quadruple murder on Wonderland Avenue – with its drooping oaks and eucalyptus – went down a block away from the house owned by then-governor Jerry Brown. Robert Stewart, the “L.A. Times” journalist assigned to the “Metro” section, and who wrote about the case, would bring over salacious, investigatory details.
At the time, my apartment was in the Hollywood flatlands – three blocks away from Eddie Nash’s “Kit Kat Club” – chocked with cokehead strippers. The Lebanese-born Palestinian immigrant, originally named Adel Nasrallah, was the biggest and most notorious owner of strip clubs in Los Angeles.
When you watch “Wonderland,” going back twenty years plus, you think you’re in for some paleontological expedition. Yet, thanks to James Cox’s considered and adept direction, a cast and script that never cheats the experience or realism of Hollywood’s enigmatic underbelly – the drama of the 1981 Wonderland murders is de-petrified.
Shed of the preconceptions that have long shrouded the Wonderland murders, you’re consumed by the film’s dark, perverse power.
When the story begins, ablaze with its speedy, coked-up energy, John Holmes’ career was already washed up. He liked partying with a small gang of trash-talking cokekeads, thieves, and ex-cons living in the Hollywood Hills. At one of these shindigs – full of scenesters, suitcase pimps, and “fill-in” girls – the blond and bearded leader of the motley crew, Ronald Launius, ordered Holmes to show one of the B-girls his legendary “thing.”
Holmes, a sycophant in Launius’ menacing presence, willingly complies.
“Can I touch it,” coos the B-girl.
“Sure,” says Launius, without a word from Holmes.
One California detective described Launius as “one of the coldest people I’ve ever met.” Actor Josh Lucas inhabits the role with unnerving precision.
Launius, thug-biker David Lind (played by Dylan McDermott), and loser-creep Billy Deverell (played by Tim Blake Nelson), in bad, bad need of a score, receive a casual tip from Holmes. Ever the object of derision, but enjoying special status thanks to thousands of money shots in the porn industry, Johnny informs Lucius of the considerable stash of heroin, cocaine, guns, and money Eddie “the Arab” Nash harbors inside his luxurious Hollywood Hills home.
The gang pulls off the heist, utterly humiliating Nash (Eric Bogosion), the ingenious bookkeeper of Hollywood’s club and coke underworld. Nash’s bodyguard, Greg Niles (played by Faizon Love) suffers indignities no less disfiguring. Launius’ sudden booty goes a long way in soothing his fevered, coked-out brain.
What happens next – Nash’s revenge – is narrated by Wonderland’s survivors, each one, in “Rashomon”-like imagery, providing conflicting accounts of the murders. Suddenly, you’re thrown into an elaborate maze of mirrors.
Your approximation of what happened is constantly assailed by new revelations, and as the dispassionate, world-weary Hollywood detectives interview one suspect after another, they arrive at their own competitive conclusions. A kind of forensic mysticism permeates the film.
Cox blends the real and the subjective nicely. The way each survivor recounts his version of the “truth” – that is, what went down on the evening of June 26th, 1981 on Wonderland Avenue – gives you a sense that there is no one truth – but multiple truths – multiple realities. Whether it’s the charismatic biker David Lind, Dawn Schiller, or, Johnny Wadd himself, you’re made acutely aware that each individual’s take on the events is contaminated.
For all its stylistic manipulations and virtuosity, the director’s faith is always in the realities of the characters and their embedded mysteries. As complex, textured, and contradictory as the film might strike you, there’s no feeling that what you’re seeing is “synthetic.” Some directors love to shape and play with cinematic style to wow you as if they’re giving their movie some added and sublime meaning. Cox does not.
What Cox does is recognize the splintered nature of his story – knowing that he would have to shape, re-order, condense, or heighten the meaning of certain events – but always with a disposition towards honoring these multiple realities.
In many ways, the director is as self-effacing as Val Kilmer’s portrait of John Holmes. There’s nothing self-aggrandizing about it.
Writing about violence in films, you often dwell on the belief in its debilitating effects, imagined or not, especially when aggression is glamorized, as if to arouse the viewer to participate in its imitation.
Kilmer – who swims against the current of past roles by portraying the porn king as a pathetic loser, a whining drug addict, a pathological liar, in general, an over-all scumbag – somehow never manages to lose your empathy. In his scenes with Schiller and his wife Sharon, the Julliard-trained actor always manages to bring to his performance a sensibility that is palpable and caring.
But it’s in “Wonderland’s” bloody and brutal climax, when John Wadd is forced to bludgeon to death one of his hapless cokeheads and partners-in-crime – that’s when “Wonderland” knocks you out.
You get it loud and clear. Your knees shake as you watch the unbearable event of Holmes sobbing mightily as he attempts to comply with Greg Diles’ stone cold orders to bludgeon Ron Launius to death. If anyone came to this movie relishing the portrayal of murder and mayhem, he or she leaves with heightened sense of the unspeakable violation and transgression of human standards violence represents.
Sure, Johnny “Wad” Holmes’ appetite for self-destruction was bottomless. He was one damaged soul.
But when it came to inflicting pain on others, at least he had his priorities straight. “Wonderland” will generate no copycat crimes. No killing sprees. The magical power of pictures here is in the service of a higher power.