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edge staff writer


Kilmer lays bare his life in documentary ‘Val’

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There are two kinds of documentaries about famous people – those made from an outside perspective and those made from an inner one.

Outside perspective docs are driven by talking head interviews and other interactions, making an effort to gain insight into a person by engaging with those who knew them. Inner perspective docs are built around the subject’s own perspective, finding their insights via their own introspection.

“Val,” the new documentary about actor Val Kilmer, falls very much into the latter camp. The film, directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott, features Kilmer looking back over the course of his life and career. The actor, whose recent dealings with throat cancer have left him with a tube in his throat and immense difficulty with speaking and being understood, has apparently spent much of his life with a video camera in his hand. The result is a wealth of archival footage – we’re talking everything from childhood on up – that offers a unique and wide-ranging perspective on the life that he has lived.

Interspersed with that archival footage are scenes that follow Kilmer as he lives now – engaging with his kids (his son Jack serves as the film’s narrator, speaking Val’s words) and dealing with the realities of his condition.

“Val” is an interesting dichotomy, a film that manages to somehow be equal parts self-aware and self-mythologizing; the juxtaposition of the person he was and the person he is results in a film that is compelling, darkly funny and – at times – deeply sad.

Now, let’s be clear here – there’s a LOT of archival footage here. It seems as though Kilmer had a camera in his hand for almost the entirety of his life. There’s loads of stuff from his childhood in the San Fernando Valley; he and his two brothers apparently were movie-obsessed and spent their time making (or remaking) movies of their own. We meet his parents, and learn about their respective issues. We also learn about the tragic passing of his brother, an early tragedy that colored much of what would come after.

We also see him as a young Julliard student living in New York City, seeing snippets of his academic days as well as his early transition to the NYC stage; there’s a great sequence wherein we learn that Kilmer was cast as the lead in a play, only to get pushed down the call sheet because Kevin Bacon was available, then pushed down AGAIN because they could get Sean Penn.

From there, the movie career starts to blossom. We hear stories from “Top Secret!” and “Top Gun;” we see his transformation into Jim Morrison for “The Doors.” As Kilmer becomes a star, his relationship to the work grows more and more complex; he wants to be challenged as an actor, but movie stardom doesn’t allow much room for those kinds of challenges. His reputation as “difficult to work with” grows; we get glimpses of that from the behind-the-scenes footage he filmed on the sets of these various movies.

(Let’s put it this way: it does not seem like he enjoyed being Batman, but he LOVED being Doc Holliday.)

Along the way, present-day footage is intercut. We watch as the ailing Kilmer adjusts to this new normal, engaging with his now-grown kids. He goes to fan conventions and other events centered around the past, making appearances and signing autographs – there’s a supercut of people asking him to sign pictures of his “Top Gun” character with some variation of “You can be my wingman” that captures that collision of past and present perfectly – all while dealing with his current health struggle.

We get to see how much he loves his kids and how much they love him. He returns to the Valley, a place he matter-of-factly proclaims that he has always hated, calling it hell. He goes to his late mother’s Arizona home to say goodbye to her. He laughs and he cries, emotions constantly bubbling to the surface, even when he is at his performative goofiest.

And there is something performative about “Val,” even as it also reads as genuine. Even now, Kilmer’s feelings about his film career are extremely mixed – there’s particularly revealing footage from the set of the infamous disaster “The Island of Dr. Moreau” where he gets combative with director John Frankenheimer before heading outside and finding Marlon Brando lounging in a hammock (Brando asks for a push, because of course he does). This is a man who longed to be taken seriously as an artist, but while he came close, he never quite got to where he wanted to be.

The familial nature of the film is apparent throughout, from the omnipresence of footage of Kilmer’s parents and brothers to that of his wife and kids. Having son Jack serve as the film’s voice is a savvy choice; he sounds similar to but not exactly like his dad.

“Val” benefits greatly from the vast archive of footage from its subject’s life, offering a reflection on the trajectory of a life and a career. But it also suffers somewhat from the singular perspective; this is Val Kilmer’s story being told, but one occasionally wonders about the reliability of the storyteller. We spend so much time with him and learn so much, yet even so, he remains somewhat enigmatic. Still, as a meditation on a life lived both in and out of the spotlight, it’s a fascinating film.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 August 2021 11:22


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