2021, R, 109 min. Directed by Ting Poo, Leo Scott. Narrated by Jack Kilmer.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 23, 2021
There is something uniquely painful about when an artist loses their voice. It's often a metaphorical loss, but in Val Kilmer's case it's quite literal.
We all know Val Kilmer as a somewhat reluctant Hollywood celebrity, but Val introduces a new side to the star of Heat and Tombstone: pack rat. It's arguably why seasoned editors Ting Poo and Leo Scott are credited as directors, even though it's hard to see this as anything other than a Kilmer family endeavor (Val's words, recited by his son, Jack). Much as his scrapbooking hobby pinwheels into collage art, Val is an assemblage. It is pulled together from thousands of hours of home videos that Kilmer took over the decades, seemingly compulsively, from childhood to audition videos to a life-saving but career-ending tracheotomy after throat cancer, and beyond.
A life on camera seems inevitable if you grew up on Roy Rogers' old ranch, with a younger brother who compulsively remade his favorite films with his siblings. Yet he was also an extraordinary talent in his own right, the youngest kid accepted to Juilliard, the maverick (pardon the pun) who pushed the rising Tom Cruise to stardom in Top Gun, who got as wild as Oliver Stone for The Doors but could survive the destructive turmoil of The Island of Dr. Moreau. He was Batman creator Bob Kane's favorite Bruce Wayne, even if audiences were cooler after he stepped in to Michael Keaton's cape. That complicated success represents the perennial tensions of his life, between the urge for Hollywood success and his personal resentment at making what he calls, bluntly, fluff. Val is an unusually open self-portrait of a classically handsome leading man whose skills and razor cheekbones opened doors but only to narrow corridors of stardom, many of which are now sealed forever.It would be hard to watch a man negotiating his own bitterness – at cancer, at the studio system, at his own stubbornness and (self-)destructive tendencies, and at his reputation as difficult. (That latter point is the only one that still seems to burn, as he includes clips from friends and peers rebutting that allegation.) It's all harder to watch because the cancer came just as he was reaching a level of artistic satisfaction that had evaded him prior: taking his one-man show of the life of Mark Twain on the road to pay for his passion project, a film of the feud between the author and Church of Christ, Scientist founder Mary Baker Eddy. But Val, while often tragic, is also a deeply spiritual film: a benediction of forgiveness for those that wronged him, and a mea culpa to those he has harmed (most especially, it seems, ex-wife Joanne Walley). That's how he's opened a new phase of his life as a patron of young artists. Kilmer's literal voice may be curtailed, but the artist is still in there, as wild and vibrant as ever.