Still standing: Actor Val Kilmer offers a one-sided portrait of his career in the bio-doc ‘Val’.
VAL ** (108 minutes) 18+
It’s a proposition as dubious as it is attractive when an actor as storied as Val Kilmer volunteers to recount his erratic career.
On the one hand there is the prospect of full and open confession about his ups, his downs, the many reports of misbehaviour and his struggle with his inner demons.
Then, of course, there is that danger with any autobiography (or authorized biography) of well-disguised cherry picking where the pretense of full disclosure is cleverly used to skirt around some of the less savory, more interesting chapters of a person’s public life.
That’s the case here.
In Val, Val Kilmer draws upon a storeroom full of his home movies and videos to illustrate a carefully curated walk-through of his career, told in the first person and peppered with segments of present-day Kilmer.
There’s no denying the sadness of seeing Kilmer as he is now. His physique dilapidated, he suffers from throat cancer that has deprived him of his voice and, in turn, his plans to make a comeback film about Mark Twain, a character he had been honing on stage to great acclaim. That denial truly stings.
Voiced by his son Jack, Kilmer recounts his childhood, his move to New York for acting school and his hard-earned rise in Hollywood with films such as Top Gun, The Doors and Tombstone.
The archival clips carry that rough, jagged verite feel that imbues the film with a sense of raw honesty. Coupled with that are some upsetting, freshly shot segments. One shows a decidedly wan Kilmer at a tribute screening in Texas.
Another, truly heart-breaking moment shows an obviously unwell, wheelchair-bound Kilmer at Comic Con graciously signing posters and photos for loving fans. The contrast between the images of him then and now is striking.
These appeals for sympathy are sincere and deserve respect. The man is clearly in a bad way.
Yet anybody possessing even a passing familiarity with Kilmer’s career will be aware of how much important material Kilmer’s self-portrait is blithely skipping over.
There are simply too many incidents and reports of Val Kilmer’s conduct on film sets to be ignored. The film ignores them anyway.
When discussing the making of 1995’s Batman Forever, Kilmer’s main gripe is about how hard it was moving in the Bat-suit and acting through a mask.
Conveniently, there’s no mention of the legendary trouble he caused director Joel Schumacher, who subsequently went on record detailing what a deliberately difficult and recalcitrant actor Kilmer could be, even calling him “psychotic”.
Similarly, Kilmer’s account of life on the infamously dysfunctional set of 1996’s The Island of Dr Moreau essentially consists of video footage of him slandering director John Frankenheimer, who took over the troubled production from Richard Stanley.
There is no mention by Kilmer of his tardiness, his abusive conduct towards the crew, nor of his conflicts with his personal hero and co-star Marlon Brando, who allegedly confronted Kilmer about his misbehaviour with the memorable quip: “Don’t confuse your ego with the size of your salary.”
As for Frankenheimer, he vowed to never work with Kilmer again.
It’s only very late in the film, after we have been fed ample opportunities to feel sorry for him, that Kilmer fleetingly mentions his bad conduct, as though it’s a barely relevant footnote to his career.
It’s not. The attempt to minimize merely highlights how the film sorely lacks a real sense of proportion and balance, even for a first-person narrative.
There are many staged shots of Kilmer looking pensive as if engaged in deep self-reflection, yet that is clearly not part of the film’s agenda.
Though the film appears to be brave, it studiously side-steps matters that Kilmer should have been made to confront on camera. He should have faced up to hard elephant-in-the-room questions, even if only to deny them.
With Kilmer credited as writer and as a producer, directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo preside over a heavily filtered auto-bio that needed a sterner hand if Val was to be anything other than a self-congratulatory, self-administered valentine designed for fans.
As it is, Val is no doubt interesting to watch, but its faux-intimacy feels like a ruse to sell what is ultimately a self-serving enterprise far more interested in garnering sympathy than with facing – or facing down – the truth.
As a rose-coloured swansong, Val has some value for diehard fans. However, if the film is intended to reframe or mollify the record regarding Val Kilmer’s notorious reputation, it is an abject failure.
Footnote:To his credit, Kilmer had a fine comedic sense, as demonstrated in films such as Top Secret, MacGruber and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Yet, inexplicably, his hilarious, self-lacerating turn in the finale of the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant series Life’s Too Short doesn’t rate a mention. More’s the pity.