For his entire life, famed and acclaimed actor Val Kilmer has had a camera capturing every aspect of his existence. Aside from those scenes in his life that are projected onto the silver screen in roles such as Iceman, Batman or Doc Holliday, Val also carried his own camera around with the purpose of catching the ‘actors experience’ to one day be released for the world to see. Now in the following years after his surgery for throat cancer leaving it hard for him to talk like he once did, Val decides that now is perfect time to metaphorically raise his voice and show of over 50 years of footage that give incredible insight into the life of a man who valued art and the people around as much as he values his own existence, in the A24/Amazon Original Documentary, Val.
Utilising a blend of the footage that Val has amassed over 50 years and a roaming camera following Kilmer as he travels across the US to visit his adoring fans, directors Ting Poo and Lee Scott have carefully constructed a wonderful ode to Kilmer. It’s documentaries like this that genuinely make the subject feel like an open book emotionally, with no thoughts, views or moments out of sight, that makes for intriguing viewing. Val Kilmer is portrayed as a free spirit, openly engaging in dialogue with co-stars and crew of stage plays and films that he is a part of in a way that makes the audience feel just as much a curious mind as Kilmer was and still is.
However, most documentaries have some form of narration for structure as we go from moment to moment, and with the hurdle of Val unable to spend long amounts of time talking, the narration has been substituted by his son and also actor, Jack Kilmer. Throughout, Jack reads a pre-prepared script detailing the events of Val’s life, as if Val was speaking it himself. This adds a unique extra layer of emotional substance to the story as we almost discover more about the psyche of Val as if we were also his family discovering more about how he became the man he is today.
Val initially starts off with the intrigue of the mysterious persona that is Val Kilmer. Early on he discusses how his throat cancer diagnosis has pushed him more to tell his story through this documentary and how he has used art in the past to express his feelings. Once this setting is established, the documentary gets stuck between two different tones. One one hand, there is an incredibly moving story about Kilmer’s personal life. Creating home movies with his family, deaths of loved ones, an up and coming, yet struggling actor all create highly emotional interest. As the story unfolds and we dive deeper into his mentality, while simultaneously seeing the effects his cancer battle have on his day-to-day life, there is a true sense of heartbreak watching how unfair life can be to some, yet the heartwarming perseverance of Val as human brings just as many smiles and it does tears.
On the other hand, certain stories that are told (especially ones from the sets of certain movies), that obviously were integral moments of his life, occasionally halt the emotional momentum that is built. While these moments will without a doubt are interesting, it does create a bit too much shift in tones through the second act. However, the moments that come with that truly authentic feeling far outweigh the moments that feel more like a generic retelling of someone’s career.
Kilmer is a truly unique person, and makes for a truly intriguing subject to make a documentary about. With a career and experiences as eclectic as his, it makes sense that as the sole subject of Val. Even when the movie is just a recollection of being on a movie set, Kilmer’s sense of wonderment brings equal amounts of joy and sadness.
Jack Kilmer’s narration comes across as a son proud, loving and in awe of his father as a person. There is a true sense that he has thought carefully about the words his father has prepared for him, and it makes all the more effect on how this documentary wants Val to be seen.
The restoration of all the Super 8, 16mm and video cassette footage looks incredible, and is used well to juxtapose the different points in Val’s life and career. The roaming camera that captures him in the present day also captures clear and crisp footage.
The film has a great aesthetic display and use of effects to show the different people and the art the Kilmer cares about immensely.
Garth Stevenson’s score is subtle whilst being the powerful sounds needed to create the heightened sense of emotion that Kilmer is also trying to portray in his life story. Many moments of the soundtrack would sneak up on you as you’re captivated more by the visuals, then a perfect increase in the score’s volume would add to the effect that it wanted to. Aside from the score, the sound design is patient and quiet. The movie is not boastful or obnoxious at any point, and the sound design captures that too.
Val is as intimate as a documentary can get. It is an emotional look not just into the career of Kilmer, but is a truly wonderful insight to what drives his creativity, his love for humanity and his perseverance in the face of a truly life-changing illness.