Directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott, the 2021 Amazon Studios documentary Val paints a self-made portrait of Val Kilmer, seen from the perspective of the thousands of hours of homemade film that Kilmer has recorded since childhood. Kilmer, although having recovered from throat cancer that has made it difficult for him to speak, makes himself more understood than he has been at any point is decades long career.
Val opens with footage of Kilmer on a couch in a trailer on the set of one of his early films, friends clearly intoxicated, shirts off. Kilmer looks at the camera and says, “More sex. More drugs. More wine. More tobacco. More headaches. More ulcers. More herpes. More women. And less of Tom Cruise.”
Kilmer’s son, Jack, does most of the narration, speaking as if he is his father. His voice is uncanny in its likeness to Val’s. “I’ve lived a magical life,” young Kilmer says. The thousands of hours of tapes that he’s shot throughout his career are the star of this film, having sat in boxes for years: writing, audition tapes, behind the scene footage, home movies, ideas for films.
“I’ve wanted to tell a story about acting for a very long time,” Kilmer says, “about the place where you and the character begin, about truth and illusion. Now that it’s more difficult to speak, I want to tell this story more than ever—a story about my life that is also not my life.”
Sure, there is footage Kilmer took behind the scenes of Top Gun and The Doors and Tombstone and Dr. Moreau. But it’s the story of a human being who happens to be an actor. The film is about the love he has for his “aloof” and “enigmatic” mother, whose love he always sought. And the love for his brother, Wesley, who died in a hot tub at age 15, when Kilmer was off to Julliard to study acting, and the love for his son, Jack.
Val’s ex-wife, Joanna, lingers in the background of the documentary—still present in his life—along with Jack. There is a sense that Val is passing on his legacy to his son (also an actor) by completing this documentary—as if it is the most significant project of his life. Val’s writing, transforms into wisdom for the younger Kilmer: “If you believe in something enough, it becomes real.” Other parts of the film feel as if Val is still coming to terms with his own young life: “My mother rarely shared her personal feelings, but I always felt connected to her through the faith that she passed onto me. That faith has helped me weather through some of life’s biggest heartaches.”
Ultimately, the documentary is about facing mortality: “I have had fears [of death],” Kilmer says, “but none that have been overwhelming about my life…my whole life I tried to see the world as one piece of life…when you pull back from the planet, you see that we’re all one life source.”
The documentary, especially the latter part, oscillates between optimism and general sadness. At an old western town in Texas, during the showing of the 1993 film Tombstone, in which Kilmer stars, Kilmer is seen walking away from the outdoor screen and his son’s voice takes over: “Sometimes I feel so low and I have the blues really, really hard about having to, you know, fly around the country. I don’t look great and I’m selling basically my old self, my old career. For many people, it’s like the lowest things you can do—talk about your old pictures and sell photographs of when you were Batman…but it enables me to meet my fans and what ends up happening is I feel really grateful, not humiliated.”
Val examines Kilmer’s 1995 performance as the dark knight in Batman Forever, which starred flamboyant performances by Tommy Lee Jones (Harvey) and Jim Carrey (the Riddler). “Every boy wants to be batman,” Kilmer says. “They actually want to be him. They don’t necessarily want to play him in a movie.” Batman Forever was a commercial success but had mixed reviews. The studio wanted to capitalize and immediately make a follow-up, but Kilmer turned down the role. Instead, he wanted to make The Saint. This is the Kilmer that was often hidden from public eye—the Julliard actor who wanted to take scripts with good writing. He didn’t want “to be like an actor on a soap opera.” Kilmer says he “just ended up in constant conflicts with people who wanted me to do commercial work.”
The documentary flashes back to the present, where Kilmer is feeling ill during an autograph signing at a convention center. The signing is paused; Kilmer lays down on a couch and vomits in a trash can. He is wheeled out of the convention center with a red blanket over his head and body.
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) “was doomed from the start,” says Kilmer. Kilmer had seen the movie as “the chance to make a great film with [his] hero [Marlon Brando].” But the film was behind schedule from the start and a new director was brought in who wanted to complete the project as quickly as possible. “And on top of everything,” says Kilmer, “the strain of [Joanna and my] careers, and spending too much time apart, had taken its toll on my marriage, and I was served divorce papers on set.”
The documentary marches through The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), The Saint (1997), Prince of Egypt (1998). Kilmer goes to Arizona to cremate his mother. Soon after, he ends up selling his precious 6,000 acres in New Mexico to pay off his debt, mainly from the divorce, so he could afford to play Mark Twain in his one-man play, Citizen Twain, he’d been writing for a decade. Acting as Twain, Kilmer says, “How do you heal a broken heart? What are the words that heal a broken heart? I know that’s not the most important question in the world, but that’s the ball and chain around my memory tonight.”
In Nashville, when Kilmer is getting ready to put on Citizen Twain, he loses his voice and things get worse. “I wrestled with possibility of my career being over,” Kilmer says, “and fell into darkness.” He begins painting again in the hospital. He opened an artist’s studio. He does what he can to hold onto a creative life. “The truth is,” says Kilmer, that “in order to find each character, I’ve had to put a little bit of me in them and find a little bit of them in me.”