Val review: Val Kilmer doc is an intimate, unmissable portrait of an actor's life
They don't make True Hollywood Stories anymore, but then they don't really make movie stars like Val Kilmer, either: the kind whose outsize presence on screen — for more than three decades he played rock stars and superheroes, outlaws and Icemen — was matched off of it by a brand of natural analog mystery our extremely online world no longer allows. So it's some kind of cosmic irony, maybe, that the voice he lost several years ago to throat cancer comes through as vibrantly and insistently as it does in Val, a new documentary streaming on Prime Video that is by turns indulgent, bittersweet, and profoundly moving.
Because Kilmer, 61, can only speak haltingly now through a port in his larynx, it's his son Jack who takes on most of the narration, though it's actually hard to distinguish between them. It's also a boon to co-directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo that the actor's prescient obsession with video cameras yielded so much raw material: reams of footage from a charmed but ill-starred childhood in 1960s and '70s Southern California (an early family tragedy would radically alter his life) on through his student days at Juilliard and onto the sets of future blockbusters like Top Gun and Batman — and notorious flops like The Island of Dr. Moreau, too.
The vintage cameos alone — a young Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon dropping their pants backstage during the run of a 1983 play; late-period Marlon Brando, regal as a sun king, swinging in a hammock on the set of Moreau — offer fascinating, ephemeral snatches of bygone Hollywood. But it's Kilmer's own rocky journey through celebrity and other more private reckonings that remain the movie's through line: deaths and divorces, the birth of his two children, a career-long struggle between art and commerce that he notoriously seemed to take to extremes, earning a particular reputation (deserved or not) for a kind of impossible, ego-driven purity among his peers and in the press.
It's clear that Kilmer could be uncompromising; he dismisses his turn in Batman as a misery of "soap-opera acting" and even went method on Top Gun, encouraging an off-screen rivalry with Tom Cruise to match their combative relationship in the script (though he still calls Cruise an ally and a friend). He's also an inveterate ham, a dramatist in all caps whether he's mooing at cows on his New Mexico ranch or pretending to be a runaway groom in home movies from his 1988 wedding to British actress Joanne Whalley. But the sincerity of his devotion to the craft is hard to dismiss — and so, after a series of serious financial setbacks, is the depth of his vulnerability when he speaks of having to earn his keep now through fan meetups and paid autograph sessions.
More recently in his forced retirement from the screen, Kilmer began churning out a highly personal series of scrapbooks, drawings, and paintings, and there's a collage-like quality to Scott and Poo's filmmaking, too; an artful mix of the actor's archives, their own new footage, and a plethora of clips (The Doors, Tombstone, Willow, Heat, Real Genius) whose sheer scope can be a jolting reminder of just how many roles he's played. The result is undoubtedly a canny mediation on the vagaries of fame, but it feels more intimate and essential than that: a lifetime of searching and self-regard distilled, somehow, into a state of grace. Grade: B+