This review of “Val” was first published on July 23, 2021 after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
When a documentary is full of home movies of a little kid who grew up to become famous, the operative word is usually cute. And “Val,” which premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, certainly has lots of cute moments of Val Kilmer and his siblings growing up in Southern California.
But those are the tip of the amateur-video iceberg in this film from directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo. The filmmakers were given access to thousands of hours of Kilmer’s footage, which also includes video of Val horsing around with Tom Cruise on the “Top Gun” set, Val’s unsolicited audition tapes for Stanley Kubrick for “Full Metal Jacket” and Martin Scorsese for “GoodFellas,” and even Val arguing with director John Frankenheimer during the rocky shooting of “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”
But those moments are juxtaposed with modern sequences that bring home the fact that the story is being told by a man whose treatment for throat cancer led to a 2014 tracheostomy that left him unable to narrate his own movie, except in subtitled sequences. One option, which is genuinely affecting when it’s revealed at the beginning of the film, is that Kilmer’s son Jack reads lines he’s written that serve as narration for much of the film.
“I’ve wanted to tell a story about acting for a very long time,” he says early in the film. “And now that it’s difficult to speak, I want to tell my story more than ever.”
Awkward at times and affecting at others, “Val” doesn’t come across as a story about acting – instead, it’s a pretty straightforward tour through Kilmer’s career with lots of mostly mild anecdotes along the way. For instance: “It was fun to play up the rivalry between (Kilmer and Cruise’s) characters, but in truth, I’ve always thought of him as a friend.”
Jack Kilmer’s voiceovers during anecdotes like this, which are touching because they’re necessary, are also odd: Because they consist of one person reading words that another has written, they create a distance you wouldn’t get in a person telling his own story – not that that’s an option in this film.
The result is a memory piece that grows sadder as it goes along, and one where the fun of seeing all that archival footage that’s been sitting in storage at Kilmer’s place gradually fades. “I’ve lived a magical life,” he says early in the film – but over the next hour and a half, what he shows is less the magic than the turmoil underneath it.
That turmoil includes the death of his younger brother – whom he calls “an artistic genius” – at the age of 15, and his father’s failed attempts to become a Southern California land tycoon, which eventually cost Kilmer everything he’d made in his first flush of success because he’d co-signed on his father’s loans.
Kilmer is also open about how he fit the portrait of a tortured artist, whether he talks of being consumed by the role of Jim Morrison in “The Doors” or laments about the wardrobe he had to wear in “Batman Forever.” “Whatever boyish excitement I had going in was crushed by the reality of the batsuit,” he said. “… I realized it was just my job to show up and stand where they told me.”
The memories are intercut with footage of Kilmer in recent years, when he’s been making the rounds of revival screenings and autograph events. At one Comic-Con type convention, he faces a long line of fans who all seem to have the same request: Can he please sign, “You can be my wingman?” (He ends up throwing up into a trash can and being wheeled out of the convention center with a blanket over his head, but he later returns to finish his duties.)
As it goes along, the film gets darker and more melancholy, though sometimes all that old footage pays dividends: A sequence that mixes two car rides, one with his mother as a child and one of him going to her funeral, is genuinely affecting.
There’s also a strange grace to a sequence of Kilmer dressed as Mark Twain on the beach and walking down the street, which is part of a long section in which he talks about selling his beloved ranch in New Mexico to finance a film version of his one-man show “Citizen Twain.” The sequence seems to blur the tragedies of Kilmer, who couldn’t get the film off the ground before throat cancer struck, and Twain, who suffered from depression and experienced the loss of many of those close to him in his final years. There’s still humor in “Val,” but for the most part, it’s a sobering look at a man who’s been forced to make peace with his work and his life. The draw may be a treasure trove of old footage, but the film is really about looking at the past to make peace with the present.
“Val” debuts on Amazon Prime this Friday.