VAL (directed by Ting Poo & Leo Scott, 109 minutes, USA, 2021)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Val is culled from 40 years of footage shot by Kilmer who was never apparently without his trusty video camera, obsessively documenting everything from his highschool stage plays to his recent victory over throat cancer. While enticing the casual viewer with peeks of his time on such iconic films as Batman, Top Gun and Heat, this doc pulls back the curtain letting fans in on the psychology behind his approach to acting, while painting a intimate, tragic and ultimately hopeful story in the process. While I’ve never been the biggest Kilmer fan, I was lured in by the film’s trailer that carried an immense emotional weight with its depiction of him overcoming cancer, while teasing the prerequisite beats of the actor’s greatest hits.
Narrated by his son who sounds uncannily just like his father here, and actually had me doing a double take, the film’s story plays out in a circular fashion. The film starts in the present and then jumps to Kilmer’s childhood and eventually catches the audience back up to Kilmer’s being diagnosed with cancer while on tour performing his one man show Citizen Twain, raising funds for a film on the iconic writer he hoped to make. The film has Val digging into the tragedy that would color most of his life and career: the death of his 15-year-old brother Wesley who drowned during an Epilptic seizure while under the supervision of his father. As children, Val would be in front of the camera while his brother Wesley was the creative force behind their early childhood shorts. This love of cinema would eventually lead Val to New York and Juilliard where his first big break awaited him, starring in an off Broadway production alongside a very young Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon.
This story presented here is dripping with a rare humanity thanks to how directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott chose to present the star and his footage, which is not as self serving as you’d probably expect. Kilmer has always rubbed me the wrong way because of how arrogant he came off in interviews and press.This film tears away this pretentious exterior by not simply giving us the literal method behind his tortuous acting process, but showing our subject warts and all, in ways most would never dare. The doc not only digs into Val’s difficult reputation as an actor and his strained relationship with his father who never forgave himself for his son’s death. It also tackles Kilmer’s divorce from Joanne Whalley, which Kilmer partially faults his all consuming preparation for his turn as Jim Morrison in The Doors. We witness all of these events play out narrated with a sobering and sometimes humorous perspective that has the actor owning every second of it as it plays out on screen.
Being a comic book fan, for me the one of the most striking moments was Kilmer deconstructing his time on Batman Forever, which was one of the actor’s more absurd and commercial roles. After Kilmer, predictably, laments how hard it was pushing a performance through the rubber suit and how he craved for more creative endeavors as an actor, we cut to Kilmer and Welsy’s take on the caped crusader as kids to further show how personal the role was to him. This segues into a very profound statement from Kilmer about his REAL disappointment in the role, was because “every boy wants to BE Batman, (but) they don’t necessarily want to play him in a movie.” It’s a rare perspective only granted by time, age and survival that illuminates Kilmer’s outlook allowing him to riff on these kinds of meaningful observations filled with heart and introspection.
The most surprising thing however is through all of this strife and tragedy presented here, Val still attempts to leave the viewer with a sense of hope, both for the film’s subject and life in general. Throat cancer may have robbed Kilmer of one of his most precious tools to an actor, his voice, but that hasn’t robbed him of his self expression. Nowadays when not on the pop-culture convention circuit meeting fans to make ends meet, Kilmer spends his time with his children, collaging or painting, which led to him opening a small gallery that also functions as a gathering space for like-minded creatives. Probably be the best way to describe the style of documentary is a cinematic collage, since it incorporates all of these different forms of media and perspectives and it works flawlessly. At the end of the film you can’t help but root for him, you may not have to love him, but the doc takes the harder path of helping you to understand the enigmatic actor and that is what ultimately won me over.