Self-Portrait on Film – Review of “Val”

Poster Art for the film “Val”. Source

One of the reasons I enjoy documentaries so much is that they are often filtered through the lens of the filmmaker. What the filmmaker chooses to focus on is how the story is built. There’s a saying I’m rather fond of from Joshua Halberstam: “If you want to tell the truth, write fiction.” The inverse of that saying would be “If you want to tell a good story, write nonfiction.” Documentaries can be seen as non-fiction in film form. They aren’t as interested in telling the truth so much as telling us a good story based on actual events. The recent Amazon Prime release “Val” is a good story, focused on the real-life of actor Val Kilmer.

There aren’t spoilers for this post. These are just my thoughts after watching the film.

Rightly or wrongly, Val Kilmer gained a reputation in Hollywood as a troublesome actor. He was called a perfectionist, a prima donna, etc. Two major filmmakers who worked with him, Joel Schumacher and John Frankenheimer, both stated publicly they would never work with him again. The film doesn’t go into great detail on these incidents, since the bulk of the movie is made up of archived footage Val shot himself over the course of his life. In many ways, the film is as much a retrospective as it is a documentary.

There were tidbits about the actor I learned from the film that I had never known, particularly regarding his family and the losses he went through. Imagine for a moment that you’re a young actor and you’ve just been accepted to The Juilliard School (which for those that don’t know is the ultimate acting school that produced such talents as Christopher Reeves, Robin Williams, Viola Davis, and Anthony Mackie). You’re the youngest person accepted into this prestigious academy and then you find out that your younger brother has died tragically. What kind of mental and emotional scars would that leave you with? From watching the film, I’d say the loss of his younger sibling had far reaching effects on Val as a person and as an artist that even he may not fully acknowledge.

The juxtaposition of the film is watching a young, vibrant man from the archival videos and the older, wizened elder who has suffered greatly due to throat cancer. A shell of his former self, with a wheezing voice due to a tracheotomy, Val’s current state is made more tragic because we get to see him as he makes his way through Hollywood, his successes and his failures, particularly with regards to his personal life. And yet, you also get to see that he was a devoted father to his children (his son Jack Kilmer provides the narration for the film). Jack’s voice sounds so much like Val’s that there were moments it felt like I was hearing Kilmer again.

I grew up watching many of Val’s early movies. As a kid from the 80s, you couldn’t not be exposed to films like Top Gun. And he’s one of my favorite actors from the film Tombstone (which made me fall in love with Westerns as a genre). The film spends a good amount of time exploring the demands of film acting and the illusion created by an actor to inhabit a role. I got the sense at some points during Val that Kilmer himself may have not always known where he ended and the role he was playing began. It’s clear that he was devoted to his craft, which was on full display toward the end of the film as it showed the one-man show he developed called Citizen Twain (where Kilmer portrayed the acerbic American genius to perfection).

From start to finish, Val is an interesting journey into the mind and heart of an artist. While it may not have given a completely accurate portrait of the man, it is a self-portrait displayed in film. I would definitely recommend checking it out on Amazon if one gets the chance.

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