Review: Val (2021)
Say the name "Val Kilmer" and you most likely immediately think of a particular role or movie starring the actor. For some, Kilmer is Batman. For others, he's Iceman from Top Gun. He's also The Saint, the Real Genius, even Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's The Doors. For decades, Kilmer has been an actor, an icon, a rebel, and outsider, a so-called troublemaker.
A new documentary that has just hit Amazon Prime after wowing audiences at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Val strips away all of the masks and performances and reveals a man who is deeply artistic and sensitive. He's a loving father and a gentle soul, but also a seeker and a fighter in the face of a devastating and life-changing illness. Even after spending nearly two hours with him via this intimate portrait, he remains something of an exquisite enigma and a study in contrasts.
Like many movie fans, I've appreciated Kilmer for a long time. He's been at the center of so many of the films that have shaped culture, both popcorn fare and the more thoughtful films that cinephiles praise, such as Michael Mann's Heat, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I knew he'd become a bit of a recluse and that commercial opportunities had largely dried up for him because he was considered difficult to work with and too much of a wild card. I even knew that he'd been battling throat cancer and that the subsequent treatment had left him almost unrecognizable, robbing him of his rich voice and elocution.
But I was altogether unprepared for the man that Val reveals. This is a creator and an artist in all forms. He made home movies with his brothers as a kid, was the youngest student ever to be accepted at Juilliard--the iconic performing arts school--and wanted to be a stage actor rather than a movie star. He's also a deeply-internal man who has experienced life with his eyes wide open, appreciating every moment, savoring the highs and lows, living in the now.
The reason we're able to see so much of the real Val is because he has been fervently filming his own life since he was a child. Every audition tape, candid footage from behind the scenes of every movie, he's kept it all, creating a personal archive of his entire life that spans thousands of hours of video cassettes and film reels. We get to go backstage thanks to footage from his earliest plays and acting classes, then be a fly on the wall during the filming of monster hits like Top Gun, Tombstone, and in an incredibly-revealing bit of footage, we're there to see The Island of Dr. Moreau fall apart when the director had no control of his actors or the production. Every triumph and tragedy is preserved for us. Practical jokes, romances, the birth of his children, the death of his parents, it's all captured and presented for us to witness.
Val himself has written the narration for this story, which is told in his own words, but with a twist: because his voice is little more than a wet, garbled rasp delivered through a tube in his throat, his son Jack reads Val's words, providing this film with a sense of legacy. The bond between father and son is visible, and so is Kilmer's deep love for his daughter Mercedes. The amount of genuine affection and vulnerability pouring out of this film is almost overwhelming: love for his children, love for acting, love for art, love for life.
Val is not really a biography, at least not in the traditional sense. Yes, we trace his roots from childhood all the way through his career and up to his intense and hard-fought struggle with throat cancer, but this is more than a routine look at a man's life and work. Due to the amount of footage from Kilmer's own personal archives, this is one of the most personal documentaries I've ever seen.
Reviews for documentaries such as this one and the recent Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain are difficult to write because the movies themselves transcend the craft of filmmaking and become altogether different experiences. How do you review a man's life? His struggles and successes? How can we watch Val Kilmer candidly share his most intimate moments, such as grief over the loss of a parent on the day he's said goodbye to them, or the joy of watching his child take their first steps, and then review those moments? It not only feels impossible, it feels tasteless to even attempt. Yet I recognize that one of the reasons I've had such an emotional response to the documentary is because it's so masterfully constructed by directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott, and yes, by Kilmer himself.
Val is stunning. A quote from Val himself: "I see myself as a sensitive, intelligent being, but with the soul of a clown." This seems to be the man in a nutshell, and yet there's so much more. Anyone that has ever enjoyed a Val Kilmer movie or performance--even those who haven't--will most likely find themselves connecting with his beautiful, open heart. The film takes its time and unfolds with the same gentle curiosity that Kilmer himself embodies and leaves viewers (at least this one) feeling inspired, motivated, and reminded that time is the only commodity that we cannot replace. Val gets our highest recommendation.
Val is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.