Written by Garrett Brown – October 27th 2021
Originally published by Film Inquiry
When I was in grade school, I was taught some very superficial ways to evaluate and categorize a source of information. For instance, books fell into two distinct styles: fiction and nonfiction. A fiction title was all made up, and a nonfiction book was truthful information. As I’ve gotten older, I understand that this is an incredibly simplistic view of evaluation: a fictional narrative can run the course through real life events, just as much as truth in nonfiction can be subverted, obfuscated, or even shadowed.
Jumping from books to film, the distinction between truth and fiction can blur even more. Growing up, I was presented with a similar dichotomy: a narrative movie like Jurassic Park is fake, while a documentary-like March of the Penguins is real and should be considered the truth. Now as a discerning film watcher, I can understand that a narrative has a perspective. I also can understand how parties with interest and invested stakes can change narratives by adjusting how we view information. Which makes me feel divided about a movie like Val.
YEARS IN THE MAKING
First of all, Val is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. Since he was a child, Val Kilmer was never without a camera by his side. Like many aspiring creatives, Val Kilmer spent his youth roping his family into making home movies, building his dreams of being an actor. Unlike many others, he kept that camera rolling, creating a record of his life at school, on set, and at home. The technology of the camera advances with his career: the audience gets to see Kilmer capture his rise in Hollywood, documenting his interactions with coworkers and friends on the set of Top Gun, Tombstone, and so many more. With a camera on his shoulder, it provides him with numerous opportunities to wax philosophically to the camera, practicing his monologues or debating the merits of different acting styles.
The camera also allows him to capture his inner turmoil: the devastation at the loss of his brother Wesley, who died at 15 when he forgot to take his epilepsy medicine and drowned during a seizure. The audience is there as Kilmer processes his disappointment at losing out on roles, or his estrangement from his father. He comes across as emotionally open, while still restrictive and guarded.
Throughout Val, the viewer can feel that Kilmer believes that he will eventually become someone who people aspire to study and analyze, like his heroes Marlon Brando and James Dean. With a commitment to capturing his world, this documentary has been a lifetime in the making, even if Kilmer was unsure what the end result of his self-analysis would eventually take.
BEHIND THE LENS
However, this is still the story of Val Kilmer, told by Val Kilmer. A camera can never truly present an unbiased narrative to an audience because it is merely a record of a particular point of time with a particular point of view. A feature-length documentary still needs to grasp the audience, so it uses narrative devices found in feature films: editing, music, lighting, and even scripting an easy-to-follow story with twists and turns.
Being a narrative about himself, Val Kilmer has invested interest to make himself appear likable and human. Kilmer talks about the struggles of potentially being so invested in acting that he is difficult to get along with on set, but there is never a mention of the accusations that he assaulted actress Caitlin O’Heaney during auditions for Oliver Stone’s The Doors. When it comes to the legacy of Val Kilmer, what does it mean when someone is allowed to shape and define the narrative of their own life’s work? Val never wants to investigate the ramifications of that question, choosing to focus on Kilmer’s dedication to performance.
Since he was a child, Kilmer demands to be taken seriously as an actor, holding dreams of being talked about in the realms and echelons of actors like Brando. Yet, through a conspiring of events, he never quite found that perfect role, the Oscar-winning character that would be studied by aspiring actors, and would cement that legacy as an elder statesman of film. Instead, he felt he was always playing second fiddle. Even when he was a leading man, assuming the mantle of Batman from Michael Keaton in the 1990s, the role never quite fit. Kilmer could never find the ability to reconcile being a commercially successful darling that studios loved to work with, as well being allowed to dive deep into characters that would appeal to his desire to be an “Actor” with a capital “A”.
LOSING HIS VOICE
Late in his career, Kilmer began developing a touring one-person show where he played Mark Twain, a figure that he had dreamed of playing for so long. It was during this time that he underwent treatment for throat cancer, causing him to lose his voice, leaving him to rasp out words.
The crux of the film becomes about a man who wants to leave a legacy behind, a legacy of advancing arts and the creative arts. Kilmer wants to honor the memory of his younger brother, to live up to his idols like Brando. Val Kilmer wants to have something to leave behind. And by losing his voice, Val Kilmer is running out of time to define his impact on the world. Val has to let his work speak for him now. And this film is the culminating thesis statement of his life.
CEMENTING THE LEGACY
Throughout the film, the documentary crew follows Val Kilmer around the United States to various fan conventions. It’s easy to see that going to these events is a painful reminder to Kilmer that he has limited options to tell his story now, that his legacy is partly defined by the work he has already done. Kilmer appreciates his fans, knowing that he would not have his life and a source of income if they did not admire his work. Still, Kilmer is shown often wrestling with self-doubt, contemplating if the rest of his life will just be a long line of fans asking him to sign Funko Pops and headshots.
While this film might be a way for Kilmer to put a button on his cultural and creative legacy, it also becomes a way for him to cement his relationship with his family. The documentary allows him to evaluate his missteps as a celebrity parent, and to build his relationship with his son Jack and daughter Mercedes. Documentary crews follow Kilmer as he hangs out with his kids, just being a father to his children: playing guitar with his son, having a day out with his daughter. Ultimately, whatever Kilmer does for acting and the arts, he recognizes that his legacy lives on through his children. This is summed up early on in the film with the reveal that Jack Kilmer is sitting in a recording booth, providing the narration. With a voice so close to his father, Jack Kilmer carries on the work and legacy of Val Kilmer.
CONCLUSION: FINDING HIS VOICE
As I was writing this review, I came across information that company Sonatic had teamed up with Val Kilmer to develop a custom AI voice model. Using archival audio, Sonatic developed a voice model for Kilmer to use in private and professional settings, effectively reopening his career to new artistic endeavors and challenges. While this documentary did not use any of the voice model, Kilmer now has new tools to continue to build on his already storied career and to continue to shape and define his legacy.
While I have critiques about the scope, I highly recommend this film to anyone curious about the life and career of Val Kilmer. Central to his identity is being a storyteller, and Kilmer is able to compel and entertain the audience. This film provides an amazing and rare amount of access into the mind of a talented performer, permitting us to comprehend Kilmer’s process and history (even if it feels guarded at times). While a documentary can never be a perfect vehicle for understanding absolute truth, Val is comprehensive and knowledgable, but never forgets to hook us in with a good story.
Did this film change how you view the work of Val Kilmer? Leave us a comment below!