VAL

Producers: Val Kilmer, Leo Scott, Ting Poo, Andrew Fried, Dane Lillegard, Jordan Wynn, Brad Koepenick and Ali Alborzi   Directors: Leo Scott and Ting Poo   Cast: Val Kilmer   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B

This autobiographical documentary on Val Kilmer, whose acting career and personal life have both had their ups and downs, is at once enlightening and self-indulgent, as defensive as it is apologetic. 

Despite being directed and edited by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, “Val” is very much a self-portrait.  It consists largely of clips taken from home movies shot in the Kilmer household during his childhood and footage that he himself has taken over the course of his adult life, from the beginning of his acting career through his current work as a painter.  Other archival material is added to the mix, including of course clips from his films and the promotional materials made for them.

The narration, moreover, is Kilmer’s.  Since his voice has been reduced to a rasp as a result of a tracheotomy and chemotherapy to treat cancer, he speaks to the camera only occasionally, with subtitles added; but much of the script—written in the first person—is read by his son Jack over the visuals, an affecting touch.  (Kilmer’s daughter Mercedes also make a brief appearance late in the film.)

The film covers Kilmer’s life from his childhood to the present, but it’s not simply a one-thing-after-another treatment; it’s an attempt at self-analysis, and even if one thinks that it glosses over, or excuses, some important aspects of his personality (his “difficult” conduct on set is explained away as a drive for excellence, not mere petulance, though behind-the-scenes footage he himself shot on the set of the disastrous Marlon Brando version of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” itself suggests otherwise), it is, after all, presented not as some objective overview but as a personal perspective.

And it certainly doesn’t flinch from discussing the impact on him and his Christian Scientist family of the death of his brother Wesley, the sparkplug of the boys’ early home-movie projects, or—despite some great successes like “The Doors”—of his dissatisfaction with much of his film work (his description of how frustrating it was to try acting in the highly restrictive Batman suit is entirely credible, and his fruitless overtures to Stanley Kubrick for a role in “Full Metal Jacket” are more poignant than ridiculous).  Kilmer comes across as a guy who took his profession seriously and aspired to high standards, and who sees himself as having fallen short of them. 

And if it portrays his late-in-life effort to recapture the magic by writing and starring in a one-man show about Mark Twain in overly glowing terms, “Val” is remarkably direct about showing his present state.  He might disparage the practice of selling autographs to fans at conventions, but he’s shown doing it nevertheless—and even filmed getting ill at the event, vomiting into a wastebasket and being taken out, a towel covering his head, in a wheelchair.    

And yet despite the infirmity Kilmer continues to work, not on stage or screen but via painting, writing and—of course—producing this film.  Ultimately one is left with the impression of a man who knows he’s made mistakes and has his share of regrets, but still pushes on, grateful for the opportunities he had and seized even as he notes ruefully the ones that got away.

This is an uncommonly reflective actor’s self-portrait, and while one might be inclined to dispute some of the readings Kilmer puts on events—in the case of “Moreau,” for example, most viewers will be inclined, even on the basis of the evidence given here, to feel more for beleaguered director John Frankenheimer than for troublesome stars like Kilmer or Brando—it has to be respected for including as many warts as it does, if not all of them.