Even before his bout with throat cancer, actor Val Kilmer’s star was fading. The devastatingly beautiful documentary Val, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, reminds us how big and bright he used to be. But it’s not just a trip down memory lane or a lament for a legendary matinee idol. Directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott, Val explores the vulnerability behind Kilmer’s movie star veneer, painting a poignant yet inspiring portrait of a larger-than-life spirit as he’s continually brought down to earth.
Because of Kilmer’s difficulty speaking through a tracheostomy tube, his son, Jack, delivers the first-person narration, thus capturing the youthful vigor that his father’s gravelly voice betrays.
Much of Kilmer’s life story is told through his decades-long collection of self-shot camcorder footage. Even in childhood home movies, he shines as a natural born star. The progression from his brothers’ makeshift sets to huge Hollywood productions gives the film a dreamlike quality. It doesn’t feel like an actual document of the past so much as Kilmer’s idyllic vision of the life he wanted to lead.
We, or at least I, tend to forget just how many iconic roles he played: Iceman (Top Gun), Jim Morrison (The Doors), Doc Holliday (Tombstone), the Dark Knight (Batman Forever). Kilmer’s behind-the-scenes footage from these massive movies makes them seem endearingly small. There’s something about seeing him and Kurt Russell twirl their gunslinger mustaches and goof around on the set of Tombstone that makes the classic Western feel like the kind of movie Kilmer made with his brothers when they were kids.
We see Kilmer’s splashy celebrity life dwarfed in more harrowing ways as well. A scene set in a convention shows him slowly growing ill while signing posters of his heroic characters. He steps away from the countless pictures of Iceman and Batman, collapses onto a couch and vomits into a garbage can, seemingly purging himself of his past. Earlier in the film, he laments living off of his old life, and in the convention scene, we can see the toll it takes. This moment is the film’s starkest reminder that Kilmer is not one of his formidable characters.
Of course, Kilmer hasn’t always been seen as gentle and sensitive. At some point in his career, he was labeled “difficult.” Poo and Scott devote a brief segment of the film to his abrasive reputation, and some reviews have criticized them for showing bias toward Kilmer and glossing over his behavior. But honestly? Whatever. The guy can only talk by putting his finger over the open hole in his throat, so he’s paid the price for any on-set tantrums.
The film suggests that Kilmer tried to manage his family like a film crew as well. He throws money at problems that could never be solved by it, specifically his father’s grief. He talks to his ex-wife like a prickly producer while negotiating custody of their kids. But he also pitches a picturesque life to his daughter that shows how much he loves his children.
Val doesn’t abide by the “rise-fall-and-rise-again” structure of a typical documentary portrait. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions. That’s most evident in footage from Kilmer’s home wedding reception. As his older brother, Mark, sings to him and his wife, the camera closes in on Kilmer swaying with his head to the floor, happy but also clearly hiding tears of sorrow over the absence of his late brother, Wesley.
All of the footage compiled by Kilmer, Poo and Scott is like this — raw and layered. There’s no talking-head fluff here. Val aches with authenticity. It’s about dreams and harsh realities and why we should be grateful for both. During a time that continues to remind us how precious life is, it emerges as a much-needed embrace of living, warts and all.