Credit: Amazon Studios/A24
by Steven Warner Featured Film Horizon Line

Val | Leo Scott & Ting Poo

July 22, 2021

There’s no denying that Val indulges in a bit of hagiography, but it remains a frequently engaging study of its enigmatic subject.

Actor Val Kilmer has always been a bit of an enigma. A Hollywood star who has appeared in some of Tinseltown’s biggest blockbusters, including a brief stint playing one of the most iconic superheroes in cinematic history, it has always somehow seemed like true stardom still remained just out of reach, even as he has maintained a career most working actors would kill to possess. The question, then, is what is it about Kilmer that has prevented him from being fully embraced by critics and audiences alike? Those looking for definitive answers may be a bit disappointed, then, by Val, the new documentary from Leo Scott and Ting Poo culled from thousands of hours of footage Kilmer himself shot over the course of his entire life, going back to childhood. There’s a certain thrill in seeing the lo-fi productions Val and his brothers would make as children, riffs on the likes of Jaws and The Great Escape that overflow with unadulterated joy for the medium itself. That passion would propel Kilmer to pursue a career in acting, becoming the youngest person ever admitted into Juilliard. Early footage shows a fresh-faced Kilmer waxing rhapsodically on the joys of acting, explicating his desire to become a respected stage thespian and one day take on the role he was born to play, that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There’s an obvious fire within this young Kilmer that is impossible to deny, his blindingly white smile and attractive features further enhancing a presence that simply draws all attention to him.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the fervor of this early footage, in Kilmer’s youthful idealism, even as we know the path his career will ultimately take, one that Val efficiently and energetically charts across its brief running time. The film intercuts archival footage shot from Kilmer himself — who apparently was like the Mr. Brainwash of Hollywood actors when it came to his love of capturing life on camera — to present-day content taken by the filmmakers, who follow Kilmer across the country as he makes paid appearances at various festivals and conventions, trading on both his fame and his name. Much of the film’s mystique lies in the most obvious question: how did Kilmer get to this point in his life, a former Batman now signing movie posters in hotel convention centers? Those familiar with Kilmer at all are likely aware of his battle against throat cancer in 2015, and the resulting surgeries and chemotherapy that left his voice a faint rasp, further hindered by two tracheotomies that require the actor to cover a hole in his throat whenever he speaks. That’s to say, 30+ years bring about major changes in everyone, but there’s an even starker contrast between the Kilmer of today and the one from 1985, seen in behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Top Gun, improvising a song with his co-stars about how he would rather endure herpes than Tom Cruise. That disparity informs most of Val, and while it’s never less than heartbreaking, it also can become a tad monotonous. This is, after all, a film that purports to be a warts-and-all portrait of its star, but something about it feels a tad calculated, even those moments where Kilmer throws vanity to the wind, his face captured in tight close-up as he removes bits of snotty paper towel from his nose, eyebrows untrimmed and unwieldy, face bloated and wrinkled.

Still, it’s perhaps foolish to expect a truly objective portrait of the actor when he himself serves as producer, facilitated access to the footage, and was guaranteed final cut. And while that footage in and of itself is fascinating, none of it is particularly revelatory. Those expecting any good behind-the-scenes shenanigans like the aforementioned Top Gun moment will likely walk away disappointed, although the stuff from The Island of Dr. Moreau is indeed reliably insane, as the 2014 documentary Lost Soul can further attest. In fact, most of the actor’s filmography is glossed over, with movies like Real Genius and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang getting only a brief mention, while even something like Heat only occupies two minutes, tops. Rumors that Kilmer is a “difficult” actor have long hounded him throughout his career, and while Val addresses those accusations, it does so in a way that feels perfunctory and entirely safe. Blame never falls on Kilmer’s shoulders here — the closest it gets is the actor’s admissions of how his divorce took a toll on him professionally in the mid-’90s — and instead, blame is cast upon the directors, the studios, the shitty scripts, and the other actors that do not take the craft as seriously as him. This whole section ends as it must, with a Robert Downey Jr. talk show clip in which the actor flat-out states that Kilmer is not difficult, before the scene fades to black. There are sporadic moments throughout that cut through this glibness, such as a video that captures Kilmer in a state of depression as he saws off his long locks with a hunting knife, babbling about the state of his life, or how his decision to go method for his role as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors contributed to the dissolution of his marriage to Joanne Whalley. And there’s also something hopeful about Val in the way it captures its subject, his desire to live life to its fullest, the pure love he feels for his two grown children, his ability to overcome devastation. So while there’s no denying that Val comes across as a bit of hagiography, and suffers for it, it’s at least never less than an engaging study, thanks to its ever-enigmatic star. It’s great to see him onscreen again, no matter the form.

You can catch Leo Scott and Ting Poo’s Val in theaters beginning on July 23 or streaming on Prime Video beginning on August 6.