Cannes 2021: Val Kilmer Documentary ‘Val’ is Fantastic Look at a Life
by Alex Billington
July 11, 2021
“I’ve wanted to tell a story about acting for a very long time… About the place where you end, and the character begins. About truth… and illusion.” How do you put together an entire life into one film? How do you tell that story and make it meaningful? Val is a documentary about the actor Val Kilmer, made by Val and his son Jack Kilmer, and co-directed by Ting Poo & Leo Scott. After an extensive acting career, Val went quiet. Now we know that has spent the last few years fighting and then recovering from throat cancer, but is now left with a hole in his throat and a completely different voice due to the chemotherapy. So, as he says in the film, “now that it’s more difficult to speak, I want to tell my story more than ever. A story about my life.” And that’s exactly what we get. Val is wonderfully candid journey through the life of an actor. It’s so rich and so full of love, and so profoundly honest. One of the very best films at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival so far.
Whatever you may have “heard” about Val Kilmer’s life before watching this documentary is irrelevant. This is the definitive story, not only because it’s told my Val himself, but also because it’s the truth. His goal is not to address any hearsay, but to take us back through his life as an actor. He has been making videos and filming his life on video cameras since he was a young boy, holding onto all the footage and all the audition tapes and everything over the years. Directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott, in collaboration with Val Kilmer and also his son Jack Kilmer, have created an astoundingly warm and welcoming portrait of Val’s life. He was one of the youngest students accept to Julliard. Then they go through his breakout years early on – major roles including Top Gun and Batman and The Doors and Tombstone. Eventually reaching his later years, culminating in a roadshow tour performing on the stage as Mark Twain before being struck down by cancer.
One of the best parts of the film is having his son Jack Kilmer narrating as Val throughout. It’s a brilliant choice. This decision feels entirely natural, obviously Val wanted him to do it, and brings extra emotion and beauty to the entire documentary. Obviously we know it isn’t Val speaking, because he can’t really speak the way he used to anymore. And instead of casting someone else or bringing in someone who can imitate the way he used to sound – having Jack read the narration turns this film into something timeless, something more meaningful as it transcends the concept of “a story about an actor” and becomes a story about a father, about a family man, about someone who tried to live a good life. Maybe he didn’t always succeed, maybe he made some mistakes, maybe he was too dedicated to his performances. But he tried and did his best to bring his best to the world – on screen and with his family. It’s not just a biopic, it’s about the truth of living a life. What that means, of course, is very personal to Val and his experiences, but that’s exactly what they explore.
There is a wealth of amazing behind-the-scenes footage shared in this documentary from so many of Val’s films (including the doomed Island of Dr. Moreau) but it’s all his home footage that really moved me. To tears at times. Along with his openness to show himself as he is now after beating throat cancer. I love how personal and yet inviting this film is. I love how much Val takes us on this journey through decades of time not to hit us over the head with wisdom or proclamations about failure, but to make us realize that an individual’s life built around taking from a bit of every experience and growing with every experience. His ultimate question is: how do you figure yourself out when you’re acting all the time as a job? And what do you make of an entire life when looking back on all of it. How do you make sense of your regrets? But also your success? How much of his life is the true Val Kilmer, and how much is Hollywood? There is no clear answer, of course, because as everyone loves to say: its the not the destination, It’s the journey that matters.