Review: Turning the camera on himself, ‘Val’ is a revealing portrait of the life of Kilmer

Val Kilmer in the documentary 'Val'
Val Kilmer in the documentary ‘Val’

A movie star’s turbulent narcissism meets a cancer survivor’s vulnerable reflection in “Val,” a documentary about Val Kilmer that is also from Val Kilmer. Leo Scott and Ting Poo are the credited directors of this intimate look at a complicated actor’s bumpy life, but their subject is also the cinematographer — Kilmer having turned the camera on himself perhaps more often than the professional machinery of moviemaking ever did.

From inventive childhood 16mm adventures to behind-the-scenes set chronicles to personal video of home and family, “Val” is both a scrapbook memoir and a narrated tour. But considering Kilmer’s battle with throat cancer, first diagnosed in 2014, the concept of voice here is fragile and layered. With the tracheostomy from his cancer treatment reducing a versatile instrument to a monotonal growl, Kilmer’s words are sometimes read by his son, Jack (now also an actor). Though he says the cancer is gone, it’s difficult to “be understood.”

“Val” is an effort on Kilmer’s part to make being understood literal and figurative. Raised in Chatsworth, steeped in pop culture and trained at Juilliard (purportedly the youngest accepted student at 17), Kilmer was all golden-haired, square-jawed promise when movies came calling in the early ’80s. Iconic roles in goofy comedies (“Top Secret”) and popcorn blockbusters (“Top Gun”) built his Hollywood cred but didn’t always align with the “Hamlet”-studying thespian who craved Great Parts and crafted elaborate, unprompted audition tapes for Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese.


The dedication made a difference when Oliver Stone tapped him to play Jim Morrison in “The Doors,” but a year in leather pants (not a joke) obsessively living the ideal role wasn’t so ideal for his young marriage to “Willow” costar Joanne Whalley. When she eventually served him divorce papers a few years into his ’90s leading-man heyday, he was on the notoriously chaotic set of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” — a job whose appeal was acting with hero Marlon Brando — feeling slighted and blighted. (We hear a memorably tense recording Kilmer made from one standoff with director John Frankenheimer.)

By the time he was filming “The Saint,” a master-of-disguise lark that for Kilmer was the ultimate see-what-I-can-do reel, he was the difficult perfectionist who was suddenly off (fired? refused to do?) the follow-up to “Batman Forever.” And yet, as he puts it, there was a stark gap between the grown-up kid who wanted to “be” Batman and what Hollywood required to “play” Batman (thankless role, constricting suit, face covered). Soon, those actorly intricacies wouldn’t matter, because the jobs became what they were to pay bills. Years later, reenergized when a lifelong obsession with Mark Twain became a passion project, the intrusion of his mortality put his life in perspective all over again.

That dance of performance and being — mindsets committed artists don’t always manage smoothly — is what makes “Val” an appealing, at times even touching hodgepodge of the actor’s journey. At six decades, having been through the health wringer, he may not look or sound the same, but the twinkle-eyed self-possession and sense of humor evident from his vast selfie archive is still there in the filmmakers’ vérité present, whether engaging with fans, spending time with his kids (he also has an adult daughter, Mercedes) or diving into new artistic endeavors at his Hollywood artist studio.

In its mix of trials both personal and professional, “Val” is an unusually open trip through the rear-view mirror of showbiz: a cautionary saga about the intersection of imagination, ambition, behavior and celebrity. That its perspective comes from a place of necessary healing for its restlessly dreaming, ever-creating and always recording subject is what protects that inquisitiveness — even when occasionally facile — from being entirely self-serving.

Attuned to what’s raw and heartfelt, “Val” reveals a Kilmer who has managed to process his identity/career not as a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story so much as a be-grateful-for-what-one-has experience. That can be life after stardom, it seems, whether the camera’s on or off.


Rated: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

Playing: Starts July 23 in general release; available Aug. 6 on Amazon Prime