Blu-ray Review: Wonderland (2005)

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As hard as it is to discern truth from fiction when you’re listening to one junkie criminal, it’s even harder when you have to compare and contrast the testimonies of two such individuals.

This is especially irritating as you acknowledge that both possess their own agendas, secrets and the overwhelming belief that no matter what the other one says, they can’t be trusted. Yet this is immediately contradicted when you factor in the issue of self-preservation and the ability to use the Fifth Amendment if needed, which neither one does because they want you to be on their side.

Further weighing down our intuition is the understanding that one man is speaking out of grief and resentment and the other is something of an actor with plenty of dramatic experience (even if he’s mostly naked in his “movies”), which makes uncovering the real from the fake damn near impossible.

And such is the case in director James Cox’s gritty true crime exploration of the gruesome Wonderland Murders which occurred in the wee small hours of a hot, Los Angeles summer morning and quickly implicated legendary “porn king” John Holmes (Val Kilmer) in the events.

For in Cox's interpretation of the case, the gauntlet of truth is buried in not only the Rashomon style presentation of testimonies by Holmes and bereaved ex-con associate David Lind (Dylan McDermott) but also via the all-around aggressively nonlinear approach taken by the filmmaker.

Primarily the film's narrative is divided in half by showing us first Lind’s chronology of events followed by Holmes’ tale of the brutal murders that were carried out as revenge for a multimillion dollar robbery. Yet veering away from this set-up, Cox further tangles up the web he weaves.

Frequently, we see key scenes at least two times with different dialogue or interpretations by the aforementioned men. However, Cox offers us a veritable prologue point-of-view from Holmes’ teen girlfriend Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth) and a penultimate smoking gun sequence privately recalled by Holmes’ estranged straight-laced wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow) that, when coupled with the sheer amount of seedy characters we must keep clear in our minds, eventually makes Wonderland a fascinating but flawed puzzle to solve.

One of the chief complaints about Cox’s confounding and complicated mystery is that, given the undesirable individuals with whom we become acquainted over the course of roughly two hours, in the end, why would we care to learn exactly what happened to the most likely ill-fated characters living on the fringes of society. And sure enough, moral objections may indeed turn off viewers on that level even though admittedly I find it hypocritical that we should negate human life in such a manner since the people being chronicled are human after all.

Nonetheless, whether or not you feel understandably repulsed by their carnal, violent, drug addled and hedonistic lifestyle, ultimately you can’t help but want to find the definitive solution especially when you learn not just how much the people who perished suffered but also that the individual(s) most likely responsible have walked away scot-free for decades.

Structurally, Cox’s work is cinematically chaotic in the way it tries to shoot us as full of information and misinformation as quickly as a junkie takes a hit and likewise, Wonderland suffers largely in comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Boogie Nights which drew from some of the same material including the robbery and the life of Holmes.

However, we’re routinely riveted by the high caliber performances of the film’s ensemble of actors including supporting players Tim Blake Nelson, Josh Lucas, and Eric Bogosian among others and credit must be given for authenticity by all those involved behind-the-scenes as well in ensuring that viewers are given the most comprehensive overview of events to try and piece it all together.

Intentionally saturated in its color scheme to give it a grainy vibe that would’ve been appropriate in not only Holmes’ career as an adult film actor but also in the era of the Betamax player that one character hurls out the window as a sort of “time-stamp” for the viewer trying to keep things straight, the Blu-ray transfer of the film to high definition is understated but solid throughout.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.