The year is 1981 and Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth) is the girlfriend of faded porn star John Holmes (Val Kilmer); as she sits in the street holding her pet dog and crying after being apparently abandoned by him, a good Samaritan (Carrie Fisher) picks her up in her camper van and takes her to her home to freshen up. Before long, Dawn has left a phone message for John and he has shown up at the address, whereupon the couple retire to the bathroom and snort lines of cocaine and have sex until the Samaritan chases them out of the house. They then find a motel room to stay at, and after doing more drugs, John goes out for a while, leaving Dawn alone. But what did Holmes do during those missing hours? Could it have been murder?
John Holmes was the first, male porn superstar of the seventies, but his career ended in a morass of drugs, scandal and a murder charge. Wonderland, written by Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz, D. Loriston Scott and the director James Cox, attempts to clear up the mystery of what happened that fateful night in July 1981 where four people were brutally bludgeoned to death, an apparent act of revenge. Holmes boasted a huge penis, the nickname "Johnny Wadd", a series of sexual conquests totalling around 1400 women, and the starring role in about a thousand porno films, but this film paints him, not entirely unsympathetically, as a seedy no hoper whose fame, or notoriety, brought him no benefits.
Rather than take a look at the lives of porn stars in the style of Boogie Nights, Wonderland approaches its subject as if it were an adaptation of a James Ellroy Los Angeles crime novel, and is densely packed with characters and incidents, making it necessary if you're not familiar with the case to concentrate hard during its first half hour so you can work out who is who. The film adopts an almost Rashomon technique by illustrating the point of view of many of those involved to build up a picture of what might have happened, along with flashy editing which sees newspaper headlines and maps superimposed over the action, which serve to clutter up the narrative all the more.
We hear the testimony of David Lind (Dylan McDermott sporting a huge beard) who may have been one of the intended victims, but escaped that terrible fate. What he says happened was that Holmes was entrusted the sale of the antique guns of criminal Ron Launius (Josh Lucas) to bigger criminal Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), a Middle Eastern immigrant who built up a successful restaurant business from almost nothing. When neither guns nor money nor drugs turned up at Launius' home as a result, Holmes was in trouble, and to get himself off the hook he agreed to participate in the robbery of Nash's house to get what Launius felt was owed to him - and more. The crime was carried out, thus giving Nash all the excuse he needed to avenge himself on the thieves who humiliated him.
But is that what happened? And how else was Holmes caught up in the crime? The drawback with an unsolved murder case is that filming it has to provide answers to the questions it poses, risking being accused of wild speculation, and with these different accounts played out the story can be confusing and cloud the waters further. What saves Wonderland from being a complete muddle is an authentically sordid atmosphere of danger and depravity which gives the required amount of force to the storyline and the acting. Kilmer is a surprisingly good choice, as his Holmes is an infuriating mess of contradictions, remorseful one minute, manipulative the next, and always the wrong person to go to if you want the truth. If you have the patience for it, the film is a vivid telling of a sensational murder that eventually pulls some sense out of the tale's inconsistencies to render a credible version of events while acknowledging that the truth is harder to pin down than the lies. Music by Cliff Martinez.