Directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo.
Starring Val Kilmer.
A documentary centering on the daily life of actor Val Kilmer featuring never-before-seen footage spanning 40 years.
Val Kilmer may be cemented in cinema history as one of the few actors to don the big-budget cape and cowl to portray Batman, but both that and his iconic, arguably Oscar-worthy performances in The Doors and Tombstone have surely been overshadowed by his prevailing reputation as “difficult to work with.”
It’s not a label which Leo Scott and Ting Poo’s probing new documentary Val attempts to evade or overwrite in any way, instead sitting down with the man himself, having recently lost most of his voice due to a battle with throat cancer, as he pores over his tumultuous Hollywood past and looks forward to the future.
As much a vital part of the story as Kilmer’s own presence is him generously handing the filmmakers 800 hours of footage that he’s filmed over the last four decades, from childhood through to his nascent period as a young actor, the peak of his fame throughout the 1990s, and his more uncertain present.
The compendium of never-before-seen home video footage, judiciously edited down by Scott and Poo themselves, paints a fascinating portrait of a man evolving over time – clearly an enormously spirited performer from youth, and one wracked with insecurities as he navigates the world of cinematic superstardom.
Kilmer also ensures this documentary is something of a family affair, as in a touch both inspired and sweet, he drafts his own son Jack in to read his written monologues aloud. To say that son captures the vocal essence of father would be an understatement indeed.
Val is as much about the very art of performance as it is the man himself, though; Kilmer’s penchant for perfectionism is brought into contextual focus through extensive footage of his young life as an actor, as he tries to bring truth to any role he accepts, be it a gig he took more for contractual reasons than inspiration like Top Gun, or the ultimate test of his acting commitment in The Doors.
One can sense a man putting pressure upon himself to compete against his hotshot contemporaries such as Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn, and Tom Cruise, and also represent his own difficult family unit, which was never the same after his younger brother Wesley died in a drowning accident in 1977 – a vital emotional touchstone throughout Val’s life.
Though it certainly doesn’t dominate the entire picture, Kilmer is happy to discuss his perception as a trying actor who won’t simply do what he’s told, though no words Kilmer says today can quite match the fascinating majesty of an included video segment he recorded while working on 1996’s doomed The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Watching Kilmer belligerently argue with veteran director John Frankenheimer is a beguiling window into one of Hollywood’s most famous trainwrecks, not to forget an hysterical moment where he and co-star David Thewlis realise Marlon Brando has suddenly been replaced on set with a double without their knowledge.
In more mainstream terms Kilmer didn’t have a great time with Batman Forever and readily discusses both his issues with the production – much of it coming down to that oft-complained about Batsuit – and his desire to not let a franchise’s demands dictate the trajectory of his career (hence him not returning, quite wisely, for the sequel).
Despite this, Kilmer has a mostly good sense of humour about his misses, even dressing up as Batman alongside his son (who is Robin, naturally) for an amusing B-roll cutaway. Though much of the doc is unavoidably steeped in sadness – confronting not only his cancer diagnosis but his 8-year marriage to Joanne Whalley, his sometimes-strained relationship with his kids, and the more recent death of his mother – the tenor overall is one of a man persevering no matter the curveballs thrown his way.
The most pressing hurdle at present, of course, is the loss of his voice, which famously resulted in him being poorly re-dubbed for the 2017 thriller The Snowman, and has since limited his employment opportunities. But like all good artists, he has learned to evolve, turning his eye to painting, mentoring a new generation of artists at a bespoke space he operates, and perhaps best of all, giving us this very documentary.
Kilmer is certainly cognisant of his glory days being behind him, but he’s not presented here as a pitiable figure, not even in a heartrending sequence where he has to be escorted away from a comic convention appearance under a blanket after falling ill. There’s a lot of joy left in the man’s life though his voice has been robbed, even as he seems destined to forever be a bleeding heart artist seeking completion through his work.
Empathetic and honest, Val illuminates a singular talent’s triumphs and challenges both personally and professionally through an uncommonly intimate lens.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.