Review: Val (2021)

It’s admirable to see a performer have his voice torn to shreds and manage to find his most honest and earnest expression in years 4 stars.

(Image: IMDB)

Val is a documentary depicting the life, or should I say story, of the actor, or should I say character, Val Kilmer. Directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, Val premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year to strong reviews which praised it’s absorbing quality and intimate perspective.

For the most part, this praise is fair and true. There is something very pure about this documentary. When the audience is first shown the modern footage of Kilmer, we aren’t greeted by the confident smile of a Hollywood icon, but the puzzled look of a man who feels he must reflect on his peculiar life.

In 2015, Kilmer was diagnosed with throat cancer. A physical trauma which he recovered from, but has unfortunately resulted in a feeding tube and the borderline inability to speak. Although he is physically full of life, the mental trauma of this experience has left an indelible scar on the actor. And, a lot of this documentary seems to be an exercise in recovery and processing the difficulty of recent years, along with the difficulties of his earlier life.

Specific to this is the emphasis on his childhood. His brother, Wesley, drowned when Kilmer was 17. And, visceral, visual vignettes of childhood reveal their close dynamic and the obvious inspiration that Wesley was for Val. Along with this, his mother’s death caused further strain, he says “Growing up, Mum was as enigmatic to me as Ingrid Bergman”. His struggles in later life remind us of his childhood attachment and barriers of youth, which he grapples with throughout.

With over 800 hours of footage shot by Kilmer, we are taken on a guided tour of his life. This allows the chance for a Hollywood icon to finally recapture his voice. Obviously, this results in a fairly self-serving and frequently pretentious story. But, the heartfelt intimacy of the tale cushions the inevitable Val-centric perspective. Despite an occasionally glossy glimpse of the past, it all feels pure, honest and, at times, heartfelt.

Val also treads less investigative ground into more allusive territory. Frequent discussions of performance and the line between the self and the actor permeate the picture. All the world is a stage and Val is a great performer. Despite his diagnosis, there is a quirky burst of life in the figure. It often feels as though Kilmer never really left the stage. Val is an opportunity for his final performance – and perhaps it is one of his greatest.

He reconstructs the scattered paper trail of his life and attempts to make sense of it all. It’s clear that a lot is left out, and at times the details are light. After all, this is his chance to reflect on the highs and lows – and with his son by his side, there is much more family home video than cutting edge journalism about the journey. But this is exactly what strengthens the documentary and is why it has been praised so highly.

Jack Kilmer and Mercedes Kilmer (Image: IMDB)

The doc is described as “A story about acting, about truth and illusion.” His final role sees him on a tour of America performing stand up as Mark Twain. It’s very in-character for Kilmer to adopt another persona and feel more at home than ever. At times the film felt reminiscent of Chris Smith’s documentary Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond (2017). Kilmer shares Carrey’s obsession with the gap between character and self, along with the lust for life and energy exposed in both of their archival footage. Even the modern tapes capture an energetic Kilmer who insists “I’m sounding much worse than I feel”.

However, this aggressive energy and exuberant charisma is often accompanied by the heaviest of lows. Thankfully, this isn’t a self-pity parade and Kilmer knows how lucky his life has been. Early footage captures his stage performances and bold entry into the too good to be true lifestyle of Hollywood heights.  

Delightful moments see young stars such as Penn, Bacon, Robbins, and Cruise all in excitable form, each on the brink of something beyond their wildest imagination. It’s fascinating to see them at a point before excess and fame begins to tear away their true self. Performance after performance seemed to push Kilmer further from his own identity, and the modern-day footage meets him at a point of moderate calm. I say moderate because he is still a child at heart.

Again, we are reminded of his obsession with youth and his inability to escape it. How can someone be so intense and problematic on set but be so immature and youthful in person? Documentaries are supposed to inform the audience about a certain topic. Interestingly, Val seems to inform excessively and then leave you with more questions than when you first started. Maybe this is the point, because Kilmer still has so many himself.

At times it’s self-important and distracted by it’s own pretensions, but with Kilmer we expect nothing less. With heartfelt honesty and vulnerability, he seems to finally be removing the characters which have clouded his vision throughout his acting career. It’s admirable to see a performer have his voice torn to shreds and manage to find his most honest and earnest expression in years. He is a larger-than-life figure who has finally found some solace in a quiet moment of reflection. And, it is a delight to be able to join him.

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