Val Kilmer Documentary ‘Val’: Film Review | Cannes 2021

This portrait of the actor delves into his voluminous personal film and video archives and follows him in a third act shaped by loss, resilience and reinvention.

As its title suggests, Val is a first-person chronicle, and one that doesn’t stand on ceremony. That’s not merely because directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo capture the musings of their subject, Val Kilmer, with a sense of unguarded intimacy, but because much of the material they’ve gathered was shot by Kilmer himself. The documentary embraces his many facets: movie star, character actor, cancer survivor, visual artist, writer, spiritual warrior, jokester, proud parent. To that list it adds another crucial accomplishment, the very reason the film exists: cinematographer.

A devoted early adopter in an era of fast-changing technology, Kilmer has been chronicling his adventures at work and at home for decades. “I’ve kept everything,” he says. “And it’s been sitting in boxes for years.” Many, many boxes.


The Bottom Line

Rewardingly unconventional.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Premières)

Directors: Leo Scott, Ting Poo

Rated R,
1 hour 49 minutes

What began as a digitizing project for Scott turned into a documentary filmmaking challenge for him and Poo, experienced editors directing their first film (Scott cut Palo Alto, the 2013 ensemble drama that featured a decidedly indie character turn by Kilmer and marked the screen debut of his son; Poo edited the Oscar-winning short Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405).

They’ve sifted through a lifetime of memories, recorded on an assortment of film and video formats. There are auditions, home movies from Kilmer’s childhood (predating his own camerawork) and from his marriage to Joanne Whalley, and backstage shenanigans with Broadway co-stars and fellow 20-somethings Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon (in the short-lived Slab Boys). There’s behind-the-scenes camaraderie on the sets of Top Gun and Tombstone — and, in the case of one notoriously troubled production, there’s commiserating with fellow castmembers and smartass disparaging of the filmmakers.

Long before it was a thing, Kilmer made his own audition tapes — on spec, pitching himself to Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. Excerpted for the film, they’re bold with a newly anointed star’s ambition as well as his vulnerability. In one tape the close-ups are unburnished, the actor’s youthful beauty breathtaking. These efforts didn’t land Kilmer the jobs he coveted in Full Metal Jacket and Goodfellas, but when it came to the role of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, a part for which he was clearly born, the actor says that “not playing Jim was not an option.” The doc’s helmer-editors intercut scenes of Morrison and Kilmer, to potently confusing effect, and Kilmer admits that his fanatical devotion to the role was “total hell” for Whalley, who would divorce him a few years later.

Given his well-established place in the pop-culture firmament — as Iceman in Top Gun, Morrison in The Doors and Doc Holliday in Tombstone, to name just a few of his most celebrated performances — Val’s present-day scenes of a longhaired, post-tracheostomy, turquoise-bedecked and collage-making Kilmer are striking in their offhand, non-Hollywood vibe. Even if, as he told Scott and Poo, he considers the documentary “just another Val Kilmer movie,” how many certified movie stars would allow themselves to be filmed so physically altered, and on the inescapable downslope of an A-list career?

Kilmer’s voice has been ravaged by the tracheostomy, a procedure necessitated by the effects of (successful) radiation treatments for throat cancer, a diagnosis he announced in 2017. He explains it all matter-of-factly, and, whether interacting with the filmmakers, fans or his children, he’s unself-conscious about his gravelly delivery (which is accompanied by helpful subtitles).

In the film’s most affecting device, Kilmer’s words are also heard in voiceover, read by his son, Jack, whose voice contains an unmistakable echo of his dad’s. Jack’s role as narrator is revealed in a way that infuses the film with an ineffable loveliness and emotional power. This is heightened by scenes of affectionate silliness between Kilmer and Jack and between him and his daughter, Mercedes. Everyone is playing for the camera, but there’s no denying their mutual adoration.

The interplay between person and performance is one of the ideas at the film’s core — “the place where you end and the character begins,” according to Kilmer, who says (via Jack), that he has long wanted to make a story about acting. His passion for the craft began in childhood and took him to Juilliard while still a teen, making him at the time the youngest student admitted to the school’s acting program.

Val is not concerned with a filmography per se, and though it follows a basic biographical chronology to tell Kilmer’s story, it does so with a keen grasp of the moments and experiences that become driving forces in a life. That story, shaped by the push-pull of many boomers’ formative years, has a quintessential midcentury Southern California quality, a glow and an undertow.

He was the middle boy of three, and his younger brother, Wesley, was a creative prodigy, turning their family’s Chatsworth property (formerly Roy Rogers’ ranch) into a set where he directed his siblings in movies, a Jaws spoof among them. The boys’ delight in their collaborative make-believe is undimmed in the 50-year-old clips.

Speaking of Wesley’s accidental death, Kilmer encapsulates the devastating loss of his teenage brother in terms that are universal in their breadth and understated in their specificity: “Our family was never the same again.” There are glimpses of a guilt-wracked father’s tarnished land-baron dreams and a mother’s resilience — the latter, it seems, consciously emulated by Kilmer or simply part of his DNA.

His emotional strength becomes acutely evident at the halfway point of the documentary, when it begins to follow him on his travels to fan events, where he rasps his thanks to crowds and signs autographs with a smile. There’s a wrenching incident at a Comic-Con in London, when he falls ill — an incident he weathers with admirable lack of to-do, the unspoken emotions deftly underscored by intercut clips of Wesley’s artwork, a source of lifelong inspiration for Kilmer. (A piece of Wesley’s art appears in Real Genius, Kilmer’s second film.)

At a stateside event, in a private moment away from the fans, Kilmer concedes that he’s engaging in what many would deem “the lowest thing”: selling his past achievements and “old self.” The film barely mentions the Christian Science faith he was raised on and still espouses. Whether it or some newer-fangled spirituality is the source of his equanimity, it’s stirring to hear him say that, however tawdry the fan circuit might be in some people’s eyes, it leaves him feeling “grateful rather than humiliated.”

But it wasn’t always Zen serenity. During his Hollywood heyday he was labeled “difficult,” a matter addressed in the film with a two-minute montage that simultaneously acknowledges the accusations and dismisses them as tabloid fodder. But behind-the-scenes footage and audio from the Australia shoot of The Island of Dr. Moreau, a movie that Kilmer says was “doomed from the start,” reveals him lacing into cinematographer William Fraker with utter ungraciousness and challenging director John Frankenheimer. Like any employees in a disastrous situation, he and co-star David Thewlis vent — about the bad script, indifferent direction and a barely participating Marlon Brando. In the cast’s off-hours Brando, supine and mountainous in a hammock, beseeches a giddy, camera-wielding Kilmer to “gimme a shove.” Ah, the glamour.

In the fall, when the doc is slated for release, Kilmer will also be onscreen in the sequel Top Gun: Maverick, reprising the role that made him a star in 1986. He did the first film under contract obligations, not happy about its “war-mongering”; 35 years later, a story of naval aviators feels no closer to who he is. But, after a lifetime of triumphs and misadventures in a strange business, there are practical matters, career considerations, the bond with fans, feelings of gratitude … and, always, acting. All this, in ways both explicit and implied, courses through Val.

But its contemporary scenes look beyond the world of moviemaking, zeroing in on the work that has ignited Kilmer’s passion since his medical ordeal — his painting and exuberant crafting of collages, and his fostering of other artists’ work through a studio and gallery in Los Angeles.

Interweaving these sequences with newly unearthed vintage material, and wisely dispensing with talking-head commentary and interviews, the helmers don’t aim to be comprehensive. They achieve something better: a film that’s agile and alive — fitting for a portrait of a man who is driven to make art, however he can.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Premières)
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Production companies: Boardwalk Pictures, Val Art Ltd., Cartel Films, A24, IAC
Directors: Leo Scott, Ting Poo
Producers: Val Kilmer, Leo Scott, Ting Poo, Andrew Fried, Dane Lillegard, Jordan Wynn, Brad Koepenick, Ali Alborzi
Executive producer: Ben Cotner
Director of photography: Val Kilmer
Editors: Ting Poo, Leo Scott
Music: Garth Stevenson

Rated R, 1 hour 49 minutes