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'Val' Review: A life vividly captured on film, and a career that got in the way

Kilmer's on-set footage and modern-day reflections offer an uncommonly intimate self-portrait of his life and work.

Val Kilmer reflects on a life on and off camera in this illuminating documentary drawn from home movies shot throughout his career.
(Image: © Amazon Studios)

Our Verdict

Directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo craft a thoughtful portrait of the actor and movie star that only generates more intrigue.

For

  • * Footage of Kilmer's time on 'Top Gun,' 'Batman Forever' and more offers new dimensions to the work that he did as his career grew.
  • * Heartbreaking details from his childhood recontextualize his creative goals and some of the conflicts that would come to define his public persona.

Against

  • * With so much footage to cull from, it's hard not to want more — about all of his films — to offer an intimate look at their productions, much less his process.

Over the last four decades, Val Kilmer has at various times possessed one of the most recognizable faces in the world. His film and theater work has been seen by millions of people. He’s probably been interviewed hundreds of times, if not thousands. And yet, audiences have almost certainly never seen him like he appears in the new documentary “Val.” Since battling throat cancer in 2017, he has largely remained out of the spotlight except for a handful of low-profile film projects, but it’s not his changed appearance that he exposes here for directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo; rather, Kilmer gives them access to a massive library of home video footage from his childhood to present for a uniquely intimate, honest and unguarded look at his life and career. Not entirely unlike last year’s “Beastie Boys Story,” the film chronicles and recontextualizes a history that’s well known with behind-the-scenes stories and details that are not, in the process humanizing Kilmer even as it deepens his mystique as a performer.

The theme that quickly emerges is a deeply relatable one: Kilmer would repeatedly achieve his dreams, but either in the way he least expected, or at great cost. An astonishing wealth of footage from his earliest days captures childhood moviemaking with his inventive younger brother Wesley, who drowned in a jacuzzi at 15 during an epileptic seizure; rehearsals and performances at Juilliard, where he was (at the time) the youngest student ever admitted for instruction; and auditions he recorded to win roles in films directed by heroes like Stanley Kubrick. Though it’s dispiriting to hear him denigrate “Top Secret!,” his (still hilarious) first film, he juxtaposes this early success with the mesmerizing theater work of his future wife Joanne Whalley which more closely resembled the serious fare he aspired to do. “Top Gun” was a film he wanted to turn down, but it afforded him the chance to exercise method-acting tactics on a blockbuster, and made him a household name almost as quickly as it did Tom Cruise.

Given the volume of material that Kilmer collected over the years — evidently filming with a personal camcorder on every film he made — it’s hard not to want to see more footage of him, say, hanging out with Cruise on Top Gun, or perhaps falling in love with Whalley while they shot Willow. Moreover, given the anecdotes told about the production of a film like Batman Forever, you want to see any and every available second of Tommy Lee Jones refusing to sanction Jim Carrey’s buffoonery. But Kilmer announces his intentions from the beginning to explore the life of an actor, not chronicle the rise of a movie star and all of the opulent ups and downs that go with them, and he candidly explores each new opportunity with an artist’s eye. On The Doors, for example, there’s tons of footage of him practicing and rehearsing in anticipation of playing frontman Jim Morrison; and even if most footage from his Batman excursion seems to come from press kit b-roll, he frames it semi-tragically as the fulfillment of “every little boy’s dream” to play the superhero, only to quickly discover that the limitations of the suit and the more imagistic elements of the role reduced him to an action figure in a giant playset.

In retrospect, and certainly with Kilmer’s commentary, you realize that it wasn’t an act of bravery, or even principle, to turn down an offer to reprise the Caped Crusader a second time, but rather one of self-preservation: his career had gotten bigger than his opportunities to do what he truly loved — to act — and so he pivoted to Michael Mann’s Heat, and more desperately, to work with his idol Marlon Brando on The Island of Dr. Moreau. That film’s turbulent production has already been covered, including in a documentary of its own, but it’s fascinating watching a first-person account from Kilmer as he butts heads with replacement director John Frankenheimer, and bonds with Brando and David Thewlis. This is also where the film explores (if doesn’t fully answer) Kilmer’s developing reputation for being demanding, difficult, and confrontational; there’s a montage of interviews with a variety of industry tastemakers up to and including Oprah Winfrey where they interrogate him about his behavior, but the diplomatic and justifiably self-serving answers he gave then unfortunately don’t gain new context or deeper introspection, and even if he communicates joy and easygoing camaraderie in his footage, it seems clear that at some level he was willing to sacrifice on-set harmony in order to get to whatever place he needed to go to play each role.

Then of course, there’s his family life, both as a child of divorce, and eventually, a divorcee with two children whom he’s obviously very close with. (Although Kilmer speaks frequently through a voice box when he’s on screen, he writes narration tying the clips together that his son Jack reads on his behalf.) Although these events are inextricable from those of his career, they become more of the focus towards the end of the film, not the least of which because his career had slid into decline, but also because he’d returned to the stage, and of course concurrently had to deal with his cancer scare. (Sadly, there’s no material from his time on MacGruber, a great role that if nothing else showcases his sense of humor about that self-serious persona.) It’s difficult to know if it’s meant to honor the body of work he’s created or acknowledge how far he’s fallen professionally to participate in assembly-line signing sessions at Comic-Con, but you can’t help but feel like he deserves more than to be autographing action figures for sweaty nerds until his handlers have to smuggle him out of the building in a wheelchair covered in a blanket.

But then again, it’s moments like those that underscore how human these people are that we so frequently hold up as movie stars and great artists, much less idolize. It additionally seems relevant that one of the roles he played in more recent years that was especially meaningful to him was in Citizen Twain, based on a play he wrote about author and humorist Mark Twain. As he enters his sixth decade on Earth, it’s entirely reasonable to reflect on the ones that preceded them, and this documentary indicates that he’s come away from them with a necessary dose of humility and an extremely healthy sense of humor. Directors Scott and Poo touch on both the ups and downs that earned him a worldview that exudes more gratitude, and keeps him young and excited; undoubtedly, one that wasn’t made with his own camera might have dug a little deeper into some of the choices along the way, but Val is uniquely intimate and uncommonly honest, offering what ultimately becomes less of a document of his career than a mesmerizing portrait of his humanity.