Wonderland (2003)
By: Michael McQueen on November 3, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Sony (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1:85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1. 104 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: James Cox
Starring: Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Kudrow, Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas, Christina Applegate, Eric Bogosian, Tim Blake Nelson, Carrie Fisher
Screenplay: James Cox, Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz, D. Loriston Scott
Country: USA
John Holmes, the man, usually requires no introduction: his legend often preceded him. So say Wonderland's opening epigraphs: "They called him the King. According to legend, he starred in more than 1000 adult films. According to legend, he slept with 14,000 women". Wonderland is a story of robbery, retribution and a cold-blooded massacre: the stuff of speculation, myth and legend, straddling the blurry line between fact and fiction; a distinction the film seeks to confound and conflate despite its allusions to truth. Wonderland is a film that oozes sex and danger. From the pornographic depictions of drug addiction and underworld murder, told (in part) from the point of the world's most notorious porn star, to the knowing parody of the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers on the cover, Wonderland shrieks rock'n'roll; a world of undiluted swagger and unmediated masculine aggression, guns and goons, money and murder, coke and cock.

The year is 1981. Los Angeles is populated by a colourful cast of the seedy and the wasted; refugees and cast-offs from the sixties waking up from the summer of love ten years later and discovering that the party's moved on without them; a hangover of nostalgia and disillusionment. Desperate times make desperate men. An underbelly of sleaze congeals with the hardcore criminal: hippie burnouts, cocaine cowboys, canon-packing crazies and smack-eyed starlets - all beyond salvation. The sixties have left them dried up and burnt out, the party's over but no one told them. Where did the good times go? And when will they come again? Hunter S Thompson summed it up best: "There was a fantastic universal sense that what we were doing was right, that we were winning…our energy would simply prevail…we had the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…You can almost see the high water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back." Fear and loathing has become entrenched in sun-bleached California under a moral eclipse.

Wonderland lays bare all the damaged romanticism of the American road movie; speed and tears; break-ups and break-downs; fast cars, hard drugs, doomed lovers; Bonnie and Clyde meets Trainspotting. Every car trip feels like a getaway, an escape to "anywhere…everywhere". John Holmes (Kilmer) and his underage girlfriend, Dawn (Bosworth) are on the run, holed up in a hotel room and desperate for cash, when news of the murders on Wonderland Avenue come onto the television. The police, who question his involvement in the homicides, soon pick up Holmes. The conflicting accounts of the murders are recollected in flashbacks, both subjective and objective, and only serve to confuse the already muddled events. Who killed who? Who betrayed who? Who do we believe? What emerges is a tale of a man desperately living on the edge, standing on the brink of some horrible void, a living nightmare; drug fucked and covered in somebody else's blood, on the run from himself, his legend, his enemies and his family.

It is impossible to feel pity for Holmes, to paint him as the victim of circumstance and misfortune. Holmes was the architect of his own demise, the bringer of his own personal apocalypse, a vagrant, a freak show, a coke fiend, a pervert. Life slips through his fingers, love deserts him, and he taints everything with betrayal. His tender relationship with Dawn is sapped of its innocence when she becomes a useable, abuseable and expendable commodity whose body he can sell in place of his own. Holmes is an infantile character who constantly repents but is unable to control himself, his actions and his addictions. In the end he reveals that self-preservation, base survival instinct, is now the only human impulse not destroyed by drug abuse: "I'm scum, I'm filth…I'm alive!" Kilmer totally inhabits Holmes' psyche, stripping away any of his star persona and driving his character further and further into the depths of despair and addiction. In one of the films more unnerving scenes, Holmes kneels in front of a coffee table smothered in cocaine, arching his back and inhaling in a manner that suggests compulsion rather than greed: a human vacuum. This is the best I have ever seen Kilmer act – it's a shame he doesn't do roles like this more often. The most intriguing relationship is between Dawn and Sharon – estranged wife and underage lover, one fighting to stand by her man, the other desperate to push him away. Their mutual affection is baffling as it is touching; these women should be tearing each other apart. What's worse is that Holmes can never seem to decide which he wants; at one point he has the two women sharing the same bed, Holmes having moments before begged his wife to join him in witness protection, now cuddling up to his teenaged sweetheart. Lisa Kudrow delivers a compelling performance that is a million miles away from her usual moronic screen persona. The cast drive a wedge between their off-screen and on-screen personas, delivering confrontational character depictions that are monstrous.

Cox confronts his audience with a psycho-hallucinatory visual aesthetic (a less pompous Natural Born Killers), that's firmly grounded in a claustrophobic universe and isn't too impressed with itself. Multiple colour tones and sunburnt tints capture the endless Californian summer; verite hand-held moments are impressively controlled to minimise nausea; choreographed camera trickery responds to the character's motions; hyperactive editing and split screens distort points of view. Much of the film's visual virtuosity is dedicated to reanimating Holmes' precarious mental state, but there are many other impressive touches. Overlong flashback sequences play with narrative chronology and the cause/effect chain, creating an enigmatic shroud over the truth. The film expertly leads up to a gruesome climax. The murders are relayed in shadows; flickers of movement and lurid gushes of gore, chunky sounds of skulls caving in, men and women screaming – sick and harrowing.

There is an immersive morbidity to this story. We approach it with a lustful yearning, a voyeurism that goes beyond 14-inch dicks and pornography. Truth, speculation, legend and fiction culminate in a narrative that is compelling and hallucinatory: a harrowing document of human depravity and degradation, a lethal cocktail of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Even at its most elated point, Wonderland remains a defiantly ugly and venomous film that deserves to be baulked at; it's sleazy, grotesque, and repugnant. There is no redemption in this requiem for the irredeemable, no lessons learnt, no satisfying conclusions drawn: Holmes sits in his wife's bathtub, mumbling to himself in a whirlwind of coke-induced paralysis, covered in blood (not his own), wrecked by guilt and self-loathing, haunted by his own mythology: a human shell attached to a sickeningly large appendage that simultaneously defines him and disgusts him, inspires worship but makes him an outcast. The film's closing moments are marked by this. Holmes speeds away into the desert, plagued by nightmares, reliving his guilt over again. The closing epigraphs detail a chilling epilogue: he will be dead in seven years. A cathartic climax played out to Gordon Lightfoot's 1970 hit, "If You Could Read My Mind", a song about imprisonment, loathing and guilt; a man transformed, barely recognisable, disgusted by himself: "With chains upon my feet, you know that ghost is me, and I will never be set free…the hero would be me, but heroes often fail…the endings just too hard to take". Just as Altamont and the Manson family heralded the death of the sixties, and all the idealism that they stood for, so did the Wonderland murders confront the decay head-on, burrowing into the modern consciousness like a poisonous insect, spreading seeds of discontent, disillusion and denial. The children of the revolution, 20th Century boys and girls, becoming jaded victims of fear, hatred and shattered visions. Holmes' car bears down on the empty horizon: "Never thought I could act this way, and I've got to say that I just don't get it. I don't know where we went wrong, but the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back"
Presented in 1:85:1 aspect ratio (with a 16:9 enhancement), Wonderland makes a junkie's reality specific - it looks and feels like the scungy experience that it is. Calculated under-stylisation is the order of the day. The cinematography is crude and drunken in places, encompassing verite hand-held elements - lurching physical responses to the actor's movements - and makes explicit Holmes' hazy warbling mental state. Funnily enough, the effect isn't as nausea-inducing as it might have been, and actually adds to the atmosphere of the film, rather than indulging in itself in cine-masturbation and self-conscious posturing. The grain and artefacts intentionally remain, lending the film a glorious anti-glamour that never feels contrived and never spoils the illusion with overly fussy cinematography. Every instant in Wonderland feels tainted by the decay of its amoral universe: bleak and fascinating in the cruellest possible way.
Presented in Dolby 5.1 the audio compliments the rabid visuals and drugged-up drudgery of Holmes' mind. Conversations fade in and out amidst a fuzzy wail of gunshots and booze. A migraine; a hangover; reality comes crashing back in surround sound when you least expect it. The soundtrack is over-stuffed, but cleverly mimics the way most of us listen to music in our heads – too many songs, too many snippets, half-finished riffs coming and going. The dialogue is occasionally mixed too quietly, so when T-Rex's "20th Century Boy" suddenly blares from the speakers at an un-Godly decibel, you're left scrambling for the remote. Even this fault seems to add something to the film, though: unpredictability? Perhaps. As an encapsulation of the period through music, it works. As a cynical ploy to sell a soundtrack, it works.
Extra Features
The voyeuristic impulse that drives the narrative is complimented in the extra features, which range from the fascinating to the disturbing. Original crime scene footage from the Wonderland murders is a grisly and arcane spectacle for the ultra-perverse, adding a haunting dimension to the package – if not a wholly exploitive one. We witness first hand the careful dissection of the crime scene – every body, every splatter - in all the minute detail. There is also a short but revealing documentary about the Wonderland murders, which interviews with the investigating detectives and Dawn Schiller, who recounts her tale domestic abuse and betrayal. There are also deleted scenes and cast interviews.
The Verdict
Wonderland is vile, sordid, and hedonistic: in other words, perfect. Wonderland doesn't blink in the face of ugliness; it holds its stare and stands its ground. It is impossible to look away from such grim spectacle, even during the final grisly moments. Really, it shouldn't work as well as it does. The result should be a disaster: a pretentious, bloated, trite Hollywood buffet of bile and false sentiment. What we have instead is a bleak and uncompromised film that is as essential as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas , Pulp Fiction and Bad Lieutenant. A horrific tribute to Holmes, and to filmmaking.
Movie Score
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