Throughout the documentary Val, modern-day Val Kilmer continually assures us that he feels better than he looks.
It’s a sad statement to hear, not just because Val Kilmer is himself admitting that he doesn’t look particularly healthy but also because it shows that Kilmer is very aware that many viewers will take one look at him and believe that his time has passed. Val Kilmer went from being a rising star in the 80s and the 90s to being a Hollywood outcast, largely due to a reputation for being eccentric and difficult to work with. While his legions of fans remembered and continued to celebrate Val Kilmer as Iceman, Jim Morrison and Doc Holliday in Tombstone, the real-life Kilmer was aging, struggling financially, and often appearing in movies that were ignored by the same public who loved his old films. Kilmer started to make a comeback by playing Mark Twain in an acclaimed one man show but a battle with throat cancer left him without his voice and the ability to feed himself. No, Kilmer doesn’t look particularly healthy in Val but, as quickly becomes apparent, his mind is as sharp as ever.
Val is really two documentaries in one. Half of the film is made up of footage of the young Val Kilmer, much of it shot by Kilmer himself. We see him hanging out with an impossible young-looking Sean Penn. We also see some behind-the-scenes footage of Tom Cruise in Top Gun and we’re left to wonder how Tom Cruise can look exactly the same in 2021 as he did in 1986. Kilmer, it turns out, was obsessive about filming his life, leaving you to wonder how much of it was about recording events and how much of it was about maintaining a wall between him and anyone who might get too close. (By filming everything, Kilmer made sure that no one stopped acting.) In the late 80s and early 90s, Kilmer went so far as to film unsolicited audition tapes for the directors with whom he wanted to work. There’s a touching earnestness to the three auditions he filmed for Stanley Kubrick while his attempts to convince Martin Scorsese to cast him in Goodfellas led to Kilmer apparently making a mini-gangster film of his own. In the footage of the young Kilmer, there’s a mix of good-natured arrogance along with an eagerness to please. Kilmer knew he was handsome and he knew he was talented but you get the feeling that what he really wanted were for his filmmaking heroes to acknowledge those things.
The other half of the film features the older Kilmer, humbled by poor health and years of personal struggles. This the Kilmer who can only speak in a rasp of a whisper. The film follows him as he goes from convention to convention, singing pictures for fans who inevitably ask him to write down catchphrases from either Top Gun or Tombstone. Kilmer says that a part of him hates having to work the circuit but, at the same time, he’s obviously and sincerely touched to have so many fans. In one of the films most powerful moments, the older Kilmer watches the younger Kilmer in Tombstone. Though the modern-day Kilmer insists that he’s doing better than he looks, it’s obvious that he’s now very much aware of his own mortality and there are parts of the film that come dangerously close to sounding like a premature eulogy. But when Kilmer watches himself as Doc Holliday, it’s obvious that Kilmer knows that, no matter what the future holds, his performances will live forever.
That said, I imagine that there are a lot of people who will watch this film just to see what Kilmer has to say about his legendary reputation for being difficult. Kilmer admits to being a perfectionist and he says that he sometimes pushed too hard. There’s a montage of various entertainment reporters, all reporting on Kilmer being “difficult” on the sets of Batman Forever and the Island of Dr. Moreau. Kilmer, himself, however doesn’t seem to view himself as being unnecessarily difficult and why should he? While other may have called him eccentric, one gets the feeling that Kilmer would simply say that he was just being himself.
Kilmer reveals a lot about himself and his career in Val. At the same time, it’s obvious that there are still certain walls that he will never completely let down. When he discusses his family and his childhood, it’s with a mix of regret and a need to believe that things really weren’t as bad as he remembers them being. He talks about how his family fell apart after the death of his brother. His father walked out on the family and, after Val became a star, cheated his son out of a fortune. One would expect Val to rail against his father but instead, Kilmer just accepts it as something that happened. Still, the amateur psychologist will be tempted to say that a lot of Val’s perfectionism came from his desire to please his father. (When Kilmer discusses Iceman in Top Gun, he says that he imagined that Iceman’s competitive nature came from having a father who was never happy with him.) Perhaps the documentary’s most revealing moment comes when we listen to audio of Val Kilmer arguing with director John Frankenheimer on the troubled set of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Kilmer says that he can’t do the scene because he’s too upset over Frankenheimer saying that he was considering walking off the picture. At that moment, one gets the feeling that the film set represented the childhood that Kilmer wanted and working with directors like Frankenheimer and Joel Schumacher threw him back into the mindset of the teen who watched his father walk away when things got too difficult.
Val is a documentary that sticks with you, a mediation of fame, aging, regret, and mortality. (Let it sound too sad to watch, rest assured that Val Kilmer does have a sense of humor and it is on display in the film.) Here’s hoping that Val Kilmer is with us and being difficult for a long time to come.