Val Paints a Fascinating, Frustrating Self-Portrait of Artistic Reinvention

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Val Paints a Fascinating, Frustrating Self-Portrait of Artistic Reinvention

Despite knowing that actor Val Kilmer underwent two tracheostomies after being diagnosed with and beating throat cancer in the late 2010s, the voice box mechanism now implanted in his neck altering his voice to a raspy garble, one might think the actor was somehow effortlessly narrating his own documentary. But Kilmer wasn’t suddenly blessed with breakthrough technology to render his voice recognizable once more, nor was Val equipped with the same highly controversial AI tech as that of Roadrunner. No, Kilmer’s 26-year-old son, Jack, sounds eerily like his father once did. And though Kilmer’s difficult-to-parse robotic croak still proliferates Leo Scott and Ting Poo’s documentary (he admits he sounds much worse than he feels), it’s Jack’s voice which acts as the guiding narration throughout—a living, breathing bridge between his father’s past, present and even future; a reminder of what once was and what will never be, and what possibilities still exist in spite of both.

Less a documentary, Val is a subjective self-portrait of a prolific actor, and a revealing, often frustrating look at the way he views himself and his life’s work. Though directed and edited by Scott and Poo (joined by Tyler Pharo in the edit), it’s hard to view Val as anything but wholly representative of and handled by the subject himself. Kilmer as star, producer, writer and cinematographer. Along with his son’s narration and the handwritten notes Kilmer etches onto shots, the documentary is almost entirely stitched together by footage that Kilmer’s been amassing since he was a boy growing up in the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles. Kilmer has two brothers, Mark and Wesley, while his father, Eugene, was an industrialist and real estate developer. His mother, Gladys, was a spiritualist and immensely influential on Kilmer’s lifelong faith in Christian Science—a topic close to Kilmer’s heart and only one of which is interestingly glossed over here.

From a young age, Kilmer had a passion for acting and for being both in front of and behind the camera, relaying that he was actually the first person he knew to own a video camera at all. A natural clown and gifted performer, Kilmer revelled as much in an audience’s attention as he did in stepping away from the spotlight and allowing himself to be the spectator. Kilmer’s archival footage—home movies, including short films with his brothers and school plays; behind-the-scenes looks at major films; audition tapes; film ideas—reveal an endlessly curious artist transfixed by the space that he occupies. Kilmer’s dedication to documenting his life is less emblematic of egomania than of the pure desire to record as much of his placement within the world as he can, and of the other people and artists whom he is privileged to experience gravitating towards his orbit.

Shortly after becoming, at the time, the youngest person to ever be accepted into The Juilliard School’s Drama Division, Kilmer experienced a major loss: Wesley passed away unexpectedly at 15. Though grief placed a moratorium on Kilmer’s home videos and short family films, his undaunted commitment to his craft eventually landed him his first major role in 1983: A lead in the off-Broadway play The Slab Boys. Yet, even after being bumped to third lead following the inclusion of fresh-faced yet bigger-name actors Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn—whom Kilmer films cheekily mooning the camera in their dressing room—Kilmer doesn’t allow the double demotion to damage confidence in his undeniable talent.

A year later, a starring role in the Zucker Brothers parody Top Secret! paved the way for his recognition as a major Hollywood star. The ensuing years saw him in big mainstream films like Top Gun, Willow, Heat and The Doors—the latter of which he nabbed by sending an audition tape to director Oliver Stone, an uncommon practice at the time that’s illustrative of Kilmer’s desire to work in exciting auteur projects. Kilmer was always looking for, if not the next best thing, the next beautiful thing. This is made ironic, however, by his decision to turn down Robert Altman twice, and pass on a role in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Still, such convictions are most likely why Val chooses to almost entirely skip over his work from the 2000s and the 2010s, years undeniably marred by less prestigious fare, but which still include some genuinely fantastic performances.

It’s even more interesting, then, to see what Kilmer views as his work most deserving of time in the film, as his later filmography still includes a slew of impressive collaborations: He’s worked with Terrence Malick, Gia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola, Werner Herzog, Shane Black, David Mamet, Ron Howard, and had second team-ups with Tony Scott and Stone. Classics like Top Secret!, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and MacGruber, which showcase his strengths as a comedic actor, are given very little if any time at all. As much as he likes to mug and make jokes for the camera—something that is, heartwarmingly, not at all diluted now in spite of a highly compromised voice and a formerly handsome visage that time has rendered a puffy, slimmed-down echo of its former self—Kilmer takes himself and his work very seriously. Even as he explains that he does not regret anything (including his reputation for being difficult to work with), it’s hard not to feel like he’s ashamed of some of the very pieces of art that produced some of his greatest performances, in the same documentary where he attends Comic Con and celebrity autograph signings that make him feel like he’s selling his old self.

But he doesn’t regret doing these. And he doesn’t regret the obstinate behavior he exhibited on sets such as the fraught The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which his frustrations were mostly exacerbated by the inherently doomed production. Though still a highly subjective account of things, it appears as if Kilmer was mostly deemed “difficult’ due to his devotion to his work and to getting the finest performance possible. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang co-star Robert Downey Jr. testifies that Kilmer wasn’t actually difficult to work with at all, while Heat co-star Tom Sizemore offers a sentiment along the lines of how being good at your job can make you a problem. It is, perhaps, true that Kilmer is an exceedingly dedicated artist wanting the best for himself and his collaborators. Still, it’s an aspect of his persona the doc spends very little time on—possibly emblematic of his self-proclaimed detachment from the past, but equally evocative of an unwillingness to reckon with it.

But Kilmer is good. Not just good: Great. This is what allowed him to revive his then-stagnant career with his successful one-man show Citizen Twain back in 2017, eventually catching the attention of Broadway producers. However, it’s all somewhat conflicting, as Kilmer can’t help but gush about the stage production and his clear interest in comedy while shrugging off some of his best comedic work. It’s the sort of thing that just naturally comes with being a complicated eccentric, no better visually articulated than in the 61-year-old’s penchant for spirituality, scrapbooking, giant turquoise-laden jewelry, sideways baseball caps and generally dressing like a middle-aged Justin Bieber. And while the film warmly depicts his relationship to art and to his children, Jack and daughter Mercedes, there are things that come across as intentionally avoided (such as his aforementioned later work and his connection to religion) that Kilmer is either unwilling or not ready to talk about intimately.

It’s also a supremely one-sided documentary—literally at times, as in the case of his tense separation from his ex-wife, actress Joanne Whalley. A recorded phone call between the two of them during their divorce proceedings plays, but we only hear Val’s end of things. Such is the equally one-sided nature of self-portraits; it’s not really a documentary, but a look at the way Val Kilmer views himself, where he came from and where he’s going to go. It is also his newest endeavor of artistic resurrection—if Val Kilmer can no longer engage with art the way that he used to, he will unflinchingly find another means. As can be said of its real-life subject, Val is moving, inspiring, funny and fractured. It’s a look at the man and an expansion of the myth, revealing just as much as it continues to obscure.

Director: Ting Poo, Leo Scott
Release Date: July 23, 2021; August 6, 2021 (Amazon)

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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