Unashamedly subjective, Val is a unique treatise on the art of acting by one of the industry’s most enigmatic figureheads.
Val Kilmer is an actor who carries with him a unique allure. As Val, A24’s intricate new autobiographical documentary, hurtles through his most famous roles, his face is unchangingly distinctive. Kilmer has that rare Hollywood beauty that nigh guarantees stardom, and he has it in spades, a face that producers and directors spent decades projecting onto. Kilmer remains today better remembered for his turns in Top Gun, Batman Forever and Top Secret than anything else. These are not the roles of a distinguished stage actor. These are the roles of a movie star, a façade of piercing eyes and an ever-so-slightly sneering mouth that could survive the trauma of replication onto a hundred million movie posters on dorm room walls.
And yet, Kilmer’s personal life and personality have been notoriously difficult puzzles to solve for an industry that thrives upon doing just that. A man of famously intense religion and spirituality, with a near obsessive fastidiousness to his performances and a Brando-esque commitment to self-destructive method acting, Kilmer is still best known for those same action hero and pretty boy roles he despises so passionately. There is some sense of tragedy in the story of the man who helped launch Juilliard’s playwrighting course, a man who spent over a year attempting to recreate Jim Morrison within himself for Oliver Stone’s The Doors, who today is best known as a haircut and a face; a stoic fighter pilot, a famously rigid caped crusader. Kilmer has been lionised by colleagues as much as he has been excoriated, and yet the label of ‘difficult’ has proven impossible to remove. It is into this debate that Val attempts to assert itself.
Val is, to some extent, a story of taking one’s voice back. Directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo seem to take an authorial backseat, as Kilmer’s own B-roll footage comes courtesy of his constant self-documentation over the past decades, and as such the film is proudly subjective. There is, of course, the near-compulsory juicy gossip from Kilmer’s more high-profile on set interactions – throwing jocular insults at Tom Cruise or swinging Marlon Brando’s hammock – but there is more intimate joy to be taken in Kilmer’s home videos, footage of his wedding day, the childhood film parodies he made with his two brothers. While Kilmer’s own voice has changed beyond recognition (bouts of throat cancer in the past few years have made it difficult for him to speak), the narration is performed by his son Jack, whose voice eerily echoes his father’s. Though Kilmer does not do nearly all the talking himself, these are his words, and it is impossible to believe that you are hearing any voice other than his own.
This, of course, brings the inevitable drawbacks of autobiographical documentary. Kilmer’s near total control over his story leaves tangible gaps in information, and one cannot help but wonder what stories exist in the spaces beyond what Kilmer is willing to share. Difficulties in his marriage are addressed briefly before being shrugged off as the unavoidable struggles of artistry, and little more is said in that regard. While Kilmer shows limited footage of arguments between himself and directors, it’s difficult to feel as though we’re not being shown a filtered version of events, and the determinedly one-sided approach the documentary presents feels incomplete to deal with these affairs. A critical viewer could read the documentary in much the same way as one listens to jazz: pay attention to the notes that aren’t being played.
These potential shortcomings, however, can be forgiven when Val is considered as a treatise on acting as an industry. Kilmer seeks to paint himself as a capital-A Actor, and it is in this struggle that the film plants its emotional roots. The struggle between creative freedom and industrial success, between artistic fulfilment and material wealth is one that defines many an A-lister’s career, and Kilmer is almost archetypical of this battle. Val consistently succeeds in its quest to grant a voice to the almost-literally voiceless, to create space for a frank and frequently heart-breaking tale of failure and success, of loss and gain, and of an industry that churns through such extremes unceasingly. While Val is deeply flawed as a comprehensive biography, it makes enough of a statement on a macroscopic level to mark a worthy component in one of Hollywood’s great internal quandaries.
Amazon Studios will release Val in US theaters July 23rd, 2021, and on Prime Video August 6th, 2021