The International Writers Magazine: Reviews
Schnieder on Val Kilmer
Val Kilmer is both one of the best film actors going and one of
the most disappointing. In films such as The Doors, Tombstone and
The Salton Sea he shows a depth of character insight rare amongst
contemporary actors, yet in films like Heat, Batman, & Wonderland
it seems that one or two little things separate his performances
from being great and plunge them into the terrible category.
Recently I watched
DVDs of two of the latest films in the Kilmer canon - his portrayal
of a man on a mission in The Salton Sea and his portrayal of
porno king Johnny Wadd Holmes in Wonderland. Both films
attempt to be modern noir films, and in both films Kilmer plays a character
that has two sides to his persona. In The Salton Sea he portrays
a dual character Danny Parker/Tom Van Allen. The former is a crystal
meth dealer and the latter a jazzman. The film is a stylistic masterpiece
that is every bit the equal of the far more lauded Memento - a similar
story about a troubled man searching for himself and the truth to his
wifes death. Kilmer sinks into the role of Tom, as an avenging
husband whose wife was brutally killed by two gunmen near the Salton
Sea. Tom decides to become Danny, and work with two crooked undercover
cops (Doug Hutchison and Anthony LaPaglia) to expose the drug cartel
he believes is responsible for his wife. Along the way he encounters
one of the great modern on screen personifications of evil - a drug
dealer named Pooh-Bear (Vincent DOnofrio) who wears a fake nosepiece
because his real nose was burnt off by cocaine use. Along with Daniel-
Day Lewiss Bill the Butcher in Gangs Of New York, Pooh-Bear is
one of those cartoony villains that nevertheless seems to be just real
enough to lift the whole of the story beyond standard noir. The real
forces Tom contends against in the film are almost surreal as the cinematography
and Dannys hallucinations. Pooh-Bears idea of fun is eating
brains, staging the JFK assassination with pigeons and a mini-car set,
and threatening Danny with having his gonads eaten by a badger.
Director D.J. Caruso and screenwriter Tony Gayton do a fine job of creating
a world that Kilmers dual personae feel right at home with. He
seems to die several times, only to wake up back in his hell. The film
is shot surreally, with low angles, frames just off-center, and flashbacks
and dreams that happen in odd places - even in the barrel of a pistol.
But what lifts this film to true greatness, like Memento, is Kilmers
performance. His blend of fear, weariness, ballsiness, and bravado echoes
back to his work in The Doors, yet surpasses it because this character
is his total creation, not a recitation of a real figure.
that fact is also what, in part, makes his portrayal of the lead
character Wonderland, a lesser achievement. Granted, the
other aspects of this film are not nearly on par with The Salton
Sea either. This film is about the quadruple murder that porno
star John Holmes (Kilmer) was involved with. It uses the old Rashomon
technique of telling the tale from differing perspectives, yet this
tale is just not that interesting.
basic story is that as Holmes porno career wound down he got involved
with some lowlife drug dealers and thieves. They decided to make a big
score by hitting up LA vice honcho Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian) and robbing
him of over a million dollars. Holmes sets up the score, but then is
pissed over being given too small a cut in the robbery. Nash suspects
Holmes involvement and threatens his family with death unless
he tells him who robbed him. Holmes rats out his pals Ron Launius (Josh
Lucas), David Lind (Dylan McDermott) and Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson).
Only Lind survives the revenge that kills two women, and he finks out
Holmes part in the murders. The film exists to show us both Linds
and Holmes versions.
The problem is that neither man evokes any sympathy for both were scumbags
and born liars, and the victims were so slimy their deaths meant little.
Lind claims Holmes set them up and that he just went along
on the heist of Nash, whole Holmes claims he was forced to betray his
pals and also participate in the murders, on Nashs orders. Aside
from Lind being a creep, the actor who plays him (McDermott) is just
way out of his league. Hes every bit as stiff as the crusading
lawyer character he played on the TV show The Practice. Kilmers
a far better actor, but in both versions of the tale his character is
so wimpily written that, well- who cares? There are some scenes involving
his wife Sharon Holmes (Lisa Kudrow) and underaged girlfriend Dawn Schiller
(Kate Bosworth), that could have displayed more of what made Johnny
Wadd tick- such as his underlying anger, but the film never goes there.
The most interesting part of Homes was his youth and what drove
him into porno, then crime, not whether or not he was an active participant
in the murders.
While the film does not explore - the bonus documentary DVD disc WADD
does. Wonderland is not a bad film, nor is Kilmers performance
bad, but its just a paint-by-numbers portrait of the ultimate
non-conformist character. Its much like the film Auto-Focus- another
paint-by-numbers film on a 70's icon, porno, and murder, when it needed
to be more like George Clooneys Confessions Of A Dangerous
Mind, a film driven by character development, not plot devices.
While both the Danny/Tom and Holmes characters are losers, drug abusers,
whiners, and liars, Wonderland lacks the script and style of
The Salton Sea, and ultimately Kilmer can do nothing to elevate
the film. In short, Kilmer is not in the league of a Robert De Niro
or Orson Welles as an actor who can be great in less-than-great films
and roles. He is wholly dependent upon the clay he is given- hes
not an alchemical artist, merely a craftsman. This is not to say that
his work in The Doors or The Salton Sea is not excellent,
it is, but he is an actor that interprets, not one that creates. This
is why he is disappointing. If one were only to watch him at his best
it would be easy to put him in a class as De Niro, or even DOnofrio.
But, compare his work as Johnny Wadd with a lesser De Niro vehicles-
such as the Cape Fear remake by Martin Scorsese.
That film, like Wonderland, is a mediocrity with a poorly written central
character, as well. But De Niros performance as Max Cady, which
could easily have gone over the top, is the only thing that raises that
trite thriller up to mediocrity. Kilmers Holmes does not elicit
sympathy nor disdain, even when he pimps his girlfriend Dawn to Nash,
and later physically abuses her. Yet, the scene where De Niro tries
to seduce Juliette Lewiss character still creeps a viewer out
even as the written dialogue seems absurd. THATS the difference!
To use a more contemporaneous actor, looking at Guy Pearce from Memento
shows the difference- as well. In Memento and The Salton Sea,
both actors shine, but compare them in lesser vehicles like The Time
Machine and The Saint. Pearce makes his character somewhat
sympathetic and a viewer almost empathizes with the hero of the unbelievable
tale. Yet, in The Saint, Kilmer lacks the suavity of Roger Moores
TV original, and the role almost descends to parody with Simon Templar
as a Lon Chaney wannabe. He becomes a cartoon figure where Pearces
character retains its integrity. This is why Kilmer has to be selective
in roles and films he chooses- he has a limited range and only when
a role niches in that role can his greatness shine. This is not so much
a criticism as a recognition, for Kilmer - as an actor- is like the
Three Bears porridge. When hes in his range hes good-
and hes very, very good, but when hes not hes, well
- a cool, tasteless grain-type cereal.
© Dan Schneider October 2004
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