Val Kilmer stands out as one of the most mercurial Hollywood figures of the past few decades. Frequently branded “difficult to work with,” he starred in iconic films from the 1980s and 1990s before hitting a wall, struggling to find projects that matched his artistic sensibilities. Although Val is directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott, it is entirely his story, at times a meditative reflection on his own past, and at others a seemingly desperate attempt to make viewers understand at long last who he is. Aided by the voice of his own son Jack (after a battle with cancer, Val underwent a tracheotomy and struggles with his speech) and an endless library of archival footage stretching back to his own childhood, Val is an introspective look at an actor grappling with his legacy.
The film, as expected, takes us on a mostly chronological journey through Val Kilmer’s life. The voiceover narration (with Jack Kilmer filling in for his father) is intensely personal, almost diary-like in its presentation. From his early life in California to the tragic death of his younger brother while Val was away at Julliard, we see all the elements that would make up who he is, not just as an actor but as a person. He perpetually seeks the truth in acting and contemplates heavy philosophical questions applied to the art form. He reveres the work of the Method actors that came before him, especially Marlon Brando.
Interestingly, this shows that the roles Val Kilmer got as a young actor did not necessarily align with his idealized version of the craft. He was a classically trained actor, but he was also an incredibly handsome young man with a somewhat flat, Southern California affectation. The characters he played often reflected that in the 1980s. It’s certainly where you get his most famous performance of the decade, as Iceman in Top Gun, and undoubtedly why he was tapped to play Batman after Michael Keaton vacated the role. Physically, he was a perfect fit, but the role couldn’t have gone more against Kilmer’s instincts as an actor.
Val serves as a perfectly satisfactory overview of his career, complete with a frankly astonishing collection of behind-the-scenes footage shot by Kilmer himself. Because he tended to bring a video camera with him pretty much everywhere, we get intriguing glimpses of on-set life, especially during the famously disastrous production of The Island of Dr. Moreau. On this one single shoot, the initial director was fired. The second director failed to rein in aging star Marlon Brando to the point that in several key scenes, a lookalike was used (Brando’s participation in the film was, Kilmer says, the main reason why signed on in the first place, to get a chance to perform opposite one of his acting heroes.) In one particularly telling moment, Kilmer tries to engage Brando in conversation: Brando, in turn, ignores his question, asking instead for Kilmer to give him a big push on the hammock he was lounging on. Never meet your heroes, you know?
These portions of the documentary are all fascinating, but the best parts are when Kilmer is forced to come to terms with the unexpected trajectory of his career. He’s contemplative and certainly humble enough to appreciate the achievements of his life. But then there are moments where he’s at conventions, signing endless autographs and hearing fans quote Iceman and Batman at him all day, and he just looks like it’s sucking the life out of him. The way he describes his emotional relationship with that element of his work, the part that he sees as distasteful, as selling out, is incredibly thoughtful and honest.
He acknowledges that it’s difficult for him to go to all the conventions. An element of humiliation, almost, or even self-loathing comes for an actor like Kilmer to be forced to sell a past version of himself at these fan events. But it almost surprises even him to note that as much as he worries that he’s going to feel embarrassed, he always comes away from conventions feeling overwhelmed and touched by the love and support of his fans. It’s rare that an actor sits down and really parses out what are understandably complicated emotions. They normally feed a line about how grateful they are for all the fans, or they present conventions as this totally demeaning, miserable nightmare experience: there isn’t often a middle ground.
And that’s what’s so striking about Val: this is him stripped bare, entirely honest with the viewers. Even if his perception of past events or his own character is colored by his own perfectly natural human tendency to misjudge himself or view things through a biased lens, he is nonetheless giving us his truth, completely unfiltered. And his personal musings, sometimes poetic, sometimes bitter, are invaluable in helping the audience understand one of the more inscrutable celebrities of our lifetimes.