Val Kilmer has a reputation that precedes him. Sure, he’s clearly a talented actor, but plenty of folks assume that he’s difficult. Is he a misunderstood artist, or something less sympathetic? The answer has eluded people for a while now, but the documentary Val is here to partly answer that. Shot almost entirely by Kilmer himself, over a period of decades, the film uses his home video style footage, as well as his modern self, to paint a portrait of him that you’ve never seen before. Kilmer has a lot to say and to offer, and even now, with illness having partly robbed him of his voice, that comes across loud and clear. If you’re even a little bit of a fan of his work, you owe it to yourself to see this doc.
Val is a moving experience that’s also a deeply unique one. You really feel like you’re getting to know the real Val Kilmer. Sure, Kilmer may be performing at times, but it always seems like him. Whether he’s being serious, silly, depressed, or just contemplative, the man is showcased in a very visceral yet gentle way. It’s a hard thing to pull off, but the flick manages to do it quite well.
Narrated by Val’s son Jack Kilmer, speaking his father’s own words, the film is a chronicle of his life. The catch is, it’s nearly all utilizing footage captured by the man himself. Spanning 40 years, we see a young Kilmer, both as a child, as well as when he was first breaking into the business. We progress through his Top Gun days, through Batman Forever, and even into his tough times on The Island of Doctor Moreau. Then, just as he’s finding a new chapter in his career, with his one man show playing Mark Twain, Citizen Twain, cancer strikes and robs him of his ability to communicate like he once could.
This isn’t just historical footage, though. Kilmer also shows up as he currently is throughout the doc, a man who doesn’t easily speak, but still clearly has a lot to say. In a way, your heart breaks for him. In another way, however, you can clearly see that he’s not letting it hold him back at all, and that’s well worth celebrating.
Watching Val Kilmer both today and in the past yields surprising emotions. He’s a compelling figure, and more playful than you might imagine. Plus, his cinematography, while clearly not meant initially to be seen in film format, does make you feel like you’re right alongside him. That’s the movie in a nutshell, too. You get to be a fly on the wall as this singular human being evolves and progresses through life.
Directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott work hard to make sure it’s Kilmer’s voice coming through at all times. They arrange and mix the captured footage by the actor with clips of his work/interviews, as well as his current day life, in such a way that it always feels vibrant. This could easily have felt like a famous person showing you their home movies. Val avoids any sense of boredom, though a segment in the third act may well make you cry. They actually get some strong emotions out there, even if you don’t think you care about the man. Poo and Scott also, somehow, leave you wanting more.
Val may well change how you think about Val Kilmer. Even if you couldn’t care less about Kilmer, this window into his world is supremely compelling and truly one of a kind. Cinephiles of all kinds, provided you’re willing to go along for the ride, will find something to latch on to here. It’s one of the more interesting surprises of 2021, so far.