A recent spate of documentaries about actors has made extensive use of years of home movie footage. And the best of that spate is Val, which represents an intimate portrait of actor Val Kilmer.
Other films in the sub-genre have included The Kids, which chronicled the making of 1996’s Kids, and Kid 90, which was directed by Punky Brewster star Soleil Moon Frye and examined her friendships with the ’90s generation of actors. Val, which was directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, gives us an intimate portrayal of an actor whose career most of us have been following for many years.
And while the film doesn’t entirely answer the riddle of who Val Kilmer is and what makes him tick, Val represents a fascinating examination of the actor’s four-decade career.
The A24 film, which debuted at Cannes, and had a brief theatrical run last month before landing on Amazon Prime Video over the weekend, also takes on a melancholy cast: Kilmer recently throat cancer, and while he has finished treatment, he now uses a voice box and the future of his acting career is in question. Between the life summation, and Bob Dylan singing “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” on the soundtrack, the subject of mortality very much hangs over Val.
Kilmer does speak to the camera, using the voice box, although most of the voiceover narration is provided by the actor’s sound-alike son, Jack Kilmer. And unlike that business with Anthony Bourdain and the AI, the filmmakers have been upfront about using Jack Kilmer’s voice to represent that of his father.
The film, making use of footage Kilmer has been shooting since the early days of his career, follows the actor’s early life, and explores both the death of his younger brother in an accident and some real estate shenanigans involving his father, which impacted their relationship. We also get an examination of Kilmer’s marriage to, and divorce from, his former wife, the actress Joanne Whalley. Kilmer is credited as a producer, which indicates that he had more than a little say in which clips were used, which is the only possible explanation for the inclusion of a recording of the divorcing couple’s child custody negotiations.
In addition to very early audition footage, Val also spends a great deal of time on the making of Kilmer’s most important movies, from Top Secret! to Top Gun to The Doors to Tombstone to Batman Forever. The most entertaining segment, by far, takes us into the set of 1996’s notorious flop The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he co-starred with an indifferent Marlon Brando. We hear a bitter argument on the set between Kilmer and director John Frankenheimer, who can be heard demanding that Kilmer stop recording; considering that that very footage is now seeing the light of day 25 years later, the since-deceased Frankenheimer clearly had the right idea in objecting.
The filmmakers, to their credit, don’t try to canonize their subject. There’s much discussion of the actor’s longstanding reputation for perfectionism and being “difficult” on set.
The film’s final section deals with Kilmer pursuing his dream role of playing Mark Twain, first in a touring stage show, although Kilmer’s cancer diagnosis has prevented the planned movie from taking place.
While Val is mostly a success, I would have liked to have heard explorations of a few more of his films, especially the early Real Genius, and some of the more oddball roles of his later career, like The Salton Sea, Wonderland, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
If Val Kilmer has ever been even a little important to you, Val is a must-watch.