“It is difficult to talk and be understood,” actor and artist Val Kilmer sighs in the opening minutes of the documentary that Leo Scott and Ting Poo have made from and about his life, which is largely cobbled together from thousands of hours of home video footage that Kilmer has shot over the last six decades. So difficult, in fact, that his son Jack actually does the talking for him. Kilmer has undergone two tracheotomies in the process of treating his throat cancer, and now speaks with a death rattle that makes him sound much worse than he feels.
And yet, the sensitive if frustratingly surface-level “Val” tells the story of a man who’s struggled to be understood since he was young and beautiful. And he was so beautiful. Beautiful in the way that only a handful of actors can hope to be each generation; beautiful in the way that Montgomery Clift was beautiful, but softer around the edges and harder to hold onto; beautiful in the way that can inspire Hollywood to flatten a rising star until their face becomes a screen unto itself, projected upon with no light behind it. A matte void that reflects nothing back into the world but its own dull glow.
It was a cruel fate for a Juilliard-trained actor so passionate about his craft that he talks about his cancer and the character he played in “Top Gun” with seemingly equal seriousness. All Kilmer ever wanted was to perform with such honesty that his work revealed some kind of self-truth to the people who saw it, and as a reward for that dream he got stuffed inside a debilitating rubber batsuit that reduced him to nothing but a pair of fat lips and made it as difficult to move himself as it did to move anyone else.
“Val” dances around the issue of why the “difficult” label stuck to Kilmer more stubbornly than it did to so many of the ’90s’ other Hollywood divos — this unambiguously subjective doc is so rooted in Kilmer’s POV that he writes its title card with his own two hands — but the fact remains that rasping unintelligibly through a hole in his neck while he tries to share his soul isn’t all that far removed from what Kilmer was doing as a movie star. This is the role that he’s been rehearsing for his entire life, and “Val” is far more rewarding if you think about it not as an autobiographical documentary, but rather as a film about an actor finding a way to express more through his characters than his characters were ever able to express through him.
Thinking of “Val” in those terms helps to excuse a lot of its cut corners and emotional dead ends. It also helps to explain why Kilmer was compelled to record so much of his life on camera, and why Poo and Scott — careful to balance the parts that Kilmer played in the past against the one he’s playing now — use so little of the solid-gold set footage their subject has recorded throughout his entire career. There will soon come a day when everyone has shot enough footage of themselves to be the subject of a feature-length documentary, but Kilmer’s working life spans that last wrinkle in time where every glimpse feels like a priceless artifact of the past.
That’s obviously true of the 8mm videos that Kilmer made at home in Los Angeles with his younger brother Wesley, who drowned in the family’s jacuzzi after having an epileptic seizure when he was just 15, and whose memory has never been far from Kilmer’s mind ever since. But it’s also true of the behind-the-scenes camcorder footage that Kilmer shot while making “Top Gun,” “Tombstone,” “The Doors,” and seemingly every other film he’s ever done. The peeks we get from the infamously plagued set of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” are juicier than all the rest combined, not only for the exquisite cameos from Marlon Brando and his stand-in Norm, but also because Kilmer’s spats with replacement director John Frankenheimer — one of them about the actor’s penchant for recording everything on camera — offer a too-rare example of how the purity of his artistic ethos conflicted with major studio productions.
Elsewhere, clips from the set of “Tombstone” (where he performed his death scene while lying atop an ice-filled mattress) and audition tape from the films that got away (specifically “Full Metal Jacket”) speak to Kilmer’s fanatical approach to his craft, and paint the picture of an actor whose boyish energy and monk-like resolve were always a volatile combination for better or worse. Looking back at the early days of his film career, Kilmer bitterly recalls spending four months learning how to play guitar for a scene in the ’80s spoof “Top Secret!,” only to be told when he arrived on set in London that it would be funnier if he faked it.
He first laid eyes on his former wife Joanne Whalley while she was starring in a West End play directed by a young Danny Boyle, and even now it pains Kilmer to remember what he was doing there: “She was brilliant,” Jack scoffs through his father’s words, “and I was in town making fluff.” Years later, when he wore the same pair of leather pants for nine months in order to fully merge with Jim Morrison, Kilmer’s pursuit of artistic honesty would begin to eat away at his marriage.
For the most part, however, “Val” uses these archival clips to establish a chronology — a chronology that Scott and Poo then use to accordion Kilmer’s radiant past together with his less enviable present in a way that allows this fast-paced documentary to feel like it contains the full sweep of a life. Whatever the ups and downs of Kilmer’s career, and however fulfilling it may or may not have been, “Val” recognizes the intrinsic poignancy of a deathless movie star facing his own mortality.
Some of the most affecting moments come from simple cuts between footage of Kilmer as a gorgeous young drama student rehearsing “Hamlet,” and shots of him now looking puffy and frail as he lays his head on his son’s lap. There’s an element of Shakespearian tragedy to how fast the infinite possibilities of his youth slipped away from him as tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow became what’s left of Kilmer today. The physical reality of watching Kilmer sign away his soul at a Comic-Con autograph booth is raw enough that it almost compensates for the film’s complete elision of Kilmer’s faith, which he credits to his Christian Scientist mother but seldom evokes again.
It’s hard to say whether that faith manifests itself in a fixed set of beliefs or if it’s only contained in the turquoise gemstones that Kilmer wears because he’s a “spiritual” 61-year-old white man who spends a lot of time in the American Southwest, but that lack of clarity epitomizes a film that is at once both unflinchingly intimate and also resistantly vague. There’s so much wishy washy talk about where the actor ends and the character begins, but if “Val” convinces us that Kilmer was able to blur that line — most impressively and most tragically in the role of Mark Twain, who Kilmer leveraged everything to play in a self-funded biopic just before his cancer diagnosis — the film only shines flashes of light on who the actor is, and what drew him to the characters he played.
But maybe, we’re left to wonder, this documentary will endure as the meeting point between them. When discussing the process of inhabiting Jim Morrison, Kilmer says, “When you’re gone from the poem, then it’s a poem. Part of you disappears so you can dance with the spirit of something else.” Some of the finer points might be a bit fuzzy, and yet, after all these years, at least we can finally understand exactly what he’s trying to say.
“Val” is now playing in theaters. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, August 6.