“John Holmes was the first porn star,” begins James Cox’s Wonderland. This is not exactly true, of course, as there were porn stars before and alongside Holmes, also known as Johnny B. Wadd and Big Jon Fallus, but none has achieved quite his notoriety. Most initial memories of him have to do with numbers, many of them stunning, even for a porn star taking full advantage of 1970s Hollywood: 14,000 women, 2,000 porn films, 14 inches (or 13, or 15), two wives, $3,000 a day, 50 valiums at a time, and, most horrifically, 4 brutal murders.
This last figure occasions Wonderland, a mostly strange and lurid account of the contradictory stories concerning Holmes’ involvement in the 1981 Laurel Canyon murders. That is, the gruesome bludgeonings of a group of Holmes’ acquaintances: drug dealer and Wonderland abode owner Ron Launius (fuzzy-faced Josh Lucas), his slow-minded buddy Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson), Joy Miller (Janeane Garofalo), and bystander Barbara Richardson (Natasha Gregson Wagner). Ron’s wife Susan (Christina Applegate) was also in the house when the assailants struck — with pipes and urgency — and though she survived, she suffered severe brain damage and could never identify the killers. These were presumably thugs sent by local gangster Adel Nasrallah, a.k.a. the most generically named Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), who here comes complete with sleezy affect, short silk robe, and a bodyguard played by Faizon Love. Nash apparently sent his underlings to exact payback for a robbery of his home; the case was never officially solved and Holmes’ part was never determined. Arrested in Florida six months later, charged and acquitted of the crime, Holmes died of AIDS-related illness at age 43, in 1988.
The story of the murders lingers in legend, in part because of the sheer horror of the crime scene (rendered here in bloody detail, more than once), and in part because of the squirmy Holmes’ association. One version informs Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, in which Holmes, transformed into Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), appears a naïve victim of his own ambitions and self-delusions. In Cox’s less rhapsodic recounting, Holmes (Val Kilmer) is a self-loving lout, coke addict, and liar, seemingly unable to comprehend (or much care about) the destruction he brings to anyone in his vicinity.
Wonderland begins when Holmes is past his porn prime, and endeavoring, sort of, to convince his beautiful, Farrah-haired girlfriend Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth) to come back to him. Though she’s been with him for five years (since she 15), she’s tired of living in a series of skuzzy L.A. motels, and has run off with her Chihuahua. Picked up on the street and sheltered with a sputtering good Samaritan, Sally (Carrie Fisher), Dawn listens impatiently to her advice: “That boyfriend of yours. Talk about your demons! He’s bad news.” But, considering the dullsville existence embodied by Sally, the poor girl just can’t help herself when her man arrives to fetch her, bearing apologies for his latest infraction and, no small thing, good drugs.
Mr. Bad News’ entrance — lurching, hirsute, desperate — is almost startling, emphatically establishing his look and behavior for the rest of the film. Still caught up in his own “legend,” he’s jonesing for affection as much as for drugs or any other diversion. Dawn provides the reflection he needs, willing to see him as stud and supplier, lover and father figure. While the film takes a moment here to show the noisy urgency of their liaison (at this moment, on the Samaritan’s bathroom sink), it’s frankly uninterested in such acrobatics or in sex per se. They go through motions for a camera at low and close angles, cut into a semblance of jerky, anxious immediacy. Discovered by Sally, they run off to John’s brokedown car, giddy and childish, big-eyed Chihuahua in tow.
If sex is not Wonderland‘s focus, neither is the extravagant violence to come. This despite the fact that the murder scene — infamously first caught on police “crime scene” video, and the first time that such evidence was used in a courtroom — is represented more than once in a Rashomon-ish hodgepodge. The first narration belongs to biker David Lind (Dylan McDermott, disguised under beard and leather jacket), a friend of Launius’ whose flowerchild girlfriend Barbara is among the massacred.
Another version emerges in John’s interview with a detective, Bill Ward (M.C. Gainey). This narrative, so obviously self-serving and cagily incomplete, takes the form of a weirdly ineffective seduction, hinting at John’s previous performative skills as well as his onetime friendship with Bill, apparently premised on John’s celebrity. That they’re conversing for a police microphone, and both perform with some sense of self-importance and conspiracy, doesn’t speak well for the cop, but it does underscore John’s deathless charm.
Still another rendition of the story comes late in the film, offered reluctantly in flashbacks by Holmes’ wife Sharon (a stunning Lisa Kudrow), in which he shows up at her place in shock and bloodied clothing on the night of the crime; she plainly resists being carried along by the tidal wave of John Holmes’ colossal ego, but finds herself drawn, to him and to Dawn (an epilogue reveals that the women were lifelong friends, following their involvements with Mr. Wadd).
All of these stories resemble each other in basic organization, in Launius’ crew’s infraction and Nash’s retaliation. But John’s participation, as snivelly snitch or sadistic killer or some entity in between, is never determined absolutely. And though Wonderland does present all sorts of explicit and harrowing images, it really is about the inability to represent something so elusive as truth, even when it might be reduced to something so apparently irreducible as bodies — sexed, dead, absolutely pornographic.
It’s on this point, the exceedingly unpoetic ambiguity of experience, as it’s remembered, willed, or narrated, that Wonderland makes the most sense. Though it spends some time introducing the miserable victims (junkies and pretenders, they incarnate the bottom John has “hit” more than they are detailed characters), as well as John’s own self-inflations, the movie is about loss and perpetual transience rather than certainty.
Cox and Captain Mauzner’s script — drawn from an unmade screenplay by Todd Samovitz and D. Loriston Scott, as well as interviews with the real Dawn and Sharon, and various Holmes legends — offers no conventionally sympathetic characters or resolution. Porn is supposed to be real sex, choreographed for viewer arousal. But the truth of it is always more complicated. Just so, there’s no truth in this true crime, only the fictions that sustain “Hollywood,” and all of its literal costs and metaphorical relations. It’s a grisly business.