Like so many Hollywood tales, Val ends up revealing a story of great promise, missed opportunity, and eventual redemption. And like so many life stories, what’s obvious to people on the outside looking in goes missed by the man who, ostensibly, is telling us the tale.
Val Offers Plenty of Insight Into Kilmer, Often Without Him Realizing
Val Kilmer’s life, from the start, seemed touched with equal parts privilege and anguish. Born to a very loving mother and a wealthy, ambitious father, the boy who would be Madmartigan had a pretty solid springboard for life. The family even bought Roy Roger’s ranch in the mid-60s which allowed Val and his two brothers to build their own makeshift backlot. However, divorce, sibling death, and bad business soured his childhood as well.
The give and take echoes throughout Kilmer’s story and the documentary. He gets the lead in his first Broadway play only to be slowly pushed down the cast list by Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn. He achieves the childhood goal of being Batman only to discover that it’s a lonely gig that feels less like acting and more like posing while everyone else chews scenery around you. And so on, over and over again.
What Kilmer — whose decades of self-filmed footage provide the movie with about 90% of its visuals — often missing is the role he played in his own disappointments. However, by presenting us with so much behind-the-scenes and candid material, the documentary nonetheless reveals it.
The best example of this comes from the segment dedicated to The Island of Doctor Moreau. A legendary disaster, it also marked probably the high-water mark for stories of Kilmer’s “difficulty.” Kilmer’s own camera finds him frequently irritating, self-involved, and, at times, almost childish. He’s often right, too, but you can see how he often got in his own way. Being right wasn’t enough if he didn’t make sure everyone else knew it.
The Moreau section also solidifies another aspect of Kilmer though: the man truly loves acting and, by extension, actors. His attempts to connect with Marlon Brando are awkward, sweet, and, seemingly, entirely rebuffed. It makes the insult Brando leveraged at Kilmer about the actor confusing his paycheck with his talent all the worse, seeing how hard Kilmer worked to ingratiate himself into his idol’s graces.
A few other aspects demand recognition. For one, there is the narration provided by Kilmer’s son Jack. Reading from his father’s words, Jack evokes the elder Kilmer so thoroughly that it feels almost supernatural. It’s not just the timber but the way he pauses or what words he chooses to emphasize. It’s a strong bit of work. Moreover, it makes the brief moments where Jack steps out of the role to express surprise at some information he just conveyed all the more affecting.
The directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott, who also edited the film along with Tyler Pharo, do an impressive job of wrangling all the footage into a workable whole. Despite the fact the various formats and the variable level of filming skill of the footage, they don’t just make it work, they make it look visually interesting.
In the end though, we return time and again to the battle between Kilmer’s two sides. Throughout the film, those aspects keeping clashing against one another: the man who loves his craft and the guy who loves being right more than getting what he wants. Even if Kilmer himself sees it or, at least, never acknowledges it, he certainly doesn’t attempt to hide. He opens up his vault and himself to our gaze and judgment. The film is undeniably compelling as a result.