by Matt Smith
I have always been a fan of Val Kilmer, but excepting the odd movie here and there, I lost track of him for a while. The Komplete Val Kilmography (2003-2012) is a twice weekly column that will run through the summer. I will be viewing and writing about each film Val Kilmer appeared in (as long as I can track down a copy of it) in the past decade.
Director James Cox’s excellent Wonderland tells the story of an infamous and unsolved murder that took place in 1981 in Los Angeles. Porn legend John Holmes was directly involved in some way, but police could never pin the crime itself on him. Crime boss Eddie Nash was later tried and plead guilty to having planned the murders as an act of vengeance for being robbed by the Wonderland gang. Holmes was acquitted during trial and before his death reportedly admitted to his sister that he was forced to watch the murders take place, but did not take part in them. This is not an article about the murders. This is about the movie.
Honestly, the film is a somewhat standard biopic, focusing on one of the seedier events in its main character’s life. By the 1980s, John Holmes was a coke addict, freebasing daily, and ripping his friends and family off. He hadn’t made a movie in some time. He was estranged from his wife, and was on the run with his girlfriend, Dawn, played in the movie by Kate Bosworth. He got involved with some bad people and ended up being dragged down into the muck with them, which he may or may not have deserved.
Wonderland takes a sympathetic view of Holmes and his involvement. The movie throws its weight behind the various theories that he was at the crime scene either during or immediately following the crimes, and incorporates testimony from the 1990s trial of Nash that more firmly establishes Holmes’s part in the murders. Apparently, he didn’t kill anyone. Well, that’s good, because I really think Holmes is a character worth liking, and it would suck if it turned out he actually killed all those people.
Val Kilmer plays Holmes, and he’s magnetic. A great performance, full of humanity and craziness, with echoes of his portrayal of rock icon Jim Morrison a decade earlier. Kilmer has a knack for playing characters who are slightly off-kilter with an odd-length fuse and high potential for spontaneous combustion. Holmes in the 1980s most certainly is that type of character.
Fans of P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights will have a distinct sense of deja vu while watching Wonderland. Anderson based Dirk Diggler on Holmes, and the 1980s scenes in that film which find Dirk and his friends trying to rip off a drug dealer played by Alfred Molina is based directly on the incidents that led to the murders depicted and dissected here.
I say this is a must-see. The cast is great – Kilmer is bolstered by terrific performances from Bosworth, Tim Blake Nelson, and Eric Bogosian. The film is well shot, extremely well written, and well worth your time. Wonderland was honestly a pleasant film to start this adventure in Kilmer-isms on. Something tells me the road beyond will be slightly less distinguished and palatable at all turns.