So the story goes that for pretty much the entirety of his adult life, actor Val Kilmer owned various film and video-recording devices that he used to document every film set he was ever on and a great deal of his off-set life as well, with his family, friends and various side trips his life took up until today. Kilmer is certainly one of his generation’s finest actors (he’s 61 now), but as the years went on, he gained a reputation for being difficult, something of a diva, and certainly a perfectionist, causing big roles in films like Top Gun, Willow, The Doors, Tombstone, and Batman Forever to dry up. In more recent years, he was diagnosed with throat cancer (which has apparently gone into full remission), the treatment leaving him unable to speak without great difficulty, making this period in his life all the more critical if he wants to get his story out to the world.
From directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo, Val is a captivating documentary about this deeply misunderstood figure who’s never stopped learning and challenging himself as an actor. They combed thousands of hours of tapes and film reels, and what results is a probing, unique and seemingly very honest look at a man whose family suffered a tremendous loss, from which none of them every fully recovered, when Kilmer was a kid. The film features no new interviews, but instead features a narration read by Kilmer’s son Jack, who sounds scarily like his father as a younger man.
As much as I was pulled into his personal struggles, like a failed marriage to Joanne Whalley, which is chronicled in depth and who shows up in newly shot footage at a time I did not expect to see her, I was most drawn-in by the incredible behind-the-scenes views of so many iconic works, beginning with a play he was meant to star in until both Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon moved into the two lead roles, leaving Kilmer to play a ridiculous supporting part. But being a professional and eager to learn from the best, he took the part anyway. He doesn’t say as much, but it really seems that the role of Doc Holliday in Tombstone might have been his personal favorite, and a recent Texas screening of the film with a riotous Q&A seems to make Kilmer exceedingly happy.
But as the acting roles dried up, the strange and difficult behavior seemed to have a steady rise, making his life doubly complicated. And as Kilmer gets wilder, the filmmaking seems to become more manic and trippy, making certain visuals of the movie match the mindset of its subject. And just when we’re sure we’re about to witness Kilmer’s complete destruction, he gets to visit with his son and daughter (who happens to live next door to him), and all seems well and stable again. In the end, the film is in equal measure rapturous, joyful, chaotic, extreme and heartbreaking (his Batman stories are ones for the archives; needless to say, he was miserable). Val makes you so happy that Kilmer was a regular part of our moviegoing experience for decades, and seeing him triumph on stage playing Mark Twain in a one-man show he wrote and was about to film before his cancer diagnosis is positively inspirational. This is one worth seeking out.
The film is now playing theatrically, in Chicago at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
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