Celebrities are obvious subjects for documentary films—you can assume some prior interest in the subject, and there’s probably lots of archival materials available to can be incorporated—and yet the results can be highly variable, both artistically and financially. In the case of Val, the new bio-doc about Val Kilmer directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, you get a well-crafted film that avoids conventional structure in the service of being true to the mercurial spirit of its subject. Or what seems to be his spirit—in this film, Kilmer comes off as a talented man who chose to not be contained by conventional boundaries, but also as a guy who might not always be giving us the full, or the real, story.
Scott and Poo take advantage of a wealth of home-video type footage featuring Kilmer, beginning with his childhood in California. His brother Wesley, who tragically drowned at age 15, was an aspiring movie director who liked to recreate scenes from his favorite films on video, and clips from some of those early efforts are included. The fascination with videotaping seems to have been a familial trait as well, because Kilmer early formed the habit of creating a sort of visual diary on video, sometimes to the annoyance of those around him.
Kilmer began as a stage actor, studying at Julliard and writing plays on the side, one of which was performed at the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival. His first film role came in the spy spoof Top Secret! (1984), in which he played a rock star and did all his character’s singing. His breakthrough came with Top Gun (1986), in which he played Iceman Kazansky, rival to Tom Cruise’s Maverick Mitchell. It’s a supporting role, but a great performance—Iceman is an a-hole, but Kilmer made him a memorable and convincing a-hole.
Kilmer seemed destined for a long and glorious career as a movie star—he was blindingly handsome, skilled at his trade, and was a hit on the Hollywood social scene as well. He played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors, and while critical opinion is mixed on how true his interpretation was to its real-life subject, you can’t say any shortfall was due to lack of effort. Kilmer pursued the role with single-minded dedication, memorizing Morrison’s songs, dressing in Morrison-like clothes, and even hanging out in Morrison’s old haunts. Kilmer also played Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993) and the caped crusader in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995); playing the latter role fulfilled a childhood dream of Kilmer’s, although he found the reality (including wearing the Batsuit) to be not nearly as much fun as he expected.
At some point, Kilmer got the reputation of an actor that was difficult to work with. Without spending a lot of time on the subject, Val does give a hint of why that judgment may not have been entirely unfair. Kilmer liked to videotape himself and other actors backstage, so to speak, and wasn’t interested in whether they wanted to be part of his home movies or not. In one memorable segment, he’s heard arguing with director John Frankenheimer during the production of The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Kilmer definitely comes off as a self-centered jerk. I would congratulate the filmmakers and the subject for their honesty in including this clip, except that I have the feeling the purpose was not so much to show that Kilmer has feet of clay (as do we all) as to assert that he was right and Frankenheimer was being a jerk.
Similarly, I’m not sure why audio clips relating to disagreements between Kilmer and the mother of his children are included. It’s not news that parents sometimes disagree, and that goes double when the parents are divorced (Kilmer was married to actress Joanne Whalley from 1988 to 1996, and they have two children). Since Whalley is not present to give her side of things, including Kilmer’s version seems like another attempt to stack the deck in his favor.
Val jumps forward and backward in time and is not terribly concerned with establishing a chronology of events. It’s frustrating if you’re trying to create some kind of coherent narrative in your head, but serves the film’s purpose of providing a portrait of the man, rather than simply an accounting of his film career. Kilmer’s son Jack provides narration (today, Kilmer speaks through an electronic larynx following surgery for throat cancer).
If you’re a Kilmer fan, you’ll definitely want to see Val. If you’re not, it may still be interesting due to the wealth of “inside Hollywood” material included. But you could also find yourself exasperated at somewhat random arrangement of materials, as well as by the issues the film chooses to not address (example: did Kilmer initially lie about being treated for cancer due to his Christian scientist beliefs?) and its lack of interest in nailing down details about concrete matters such as money (how could someone who appeared in so many blockbuster films be broke? And was that Mark Twain play he wrote and starred in just a vanity, or did it prove to have legs?) The abiding impression you will get from Val is that Val Kilmer regards himself as the hero of his own life, and for a movie star, perhaps that’s not such a surprise after all. | Sarah Boslaugh