Val review – unusual doc offers fractured portrait of actor

Val Kilmer’s life and career is illustrated via the actor’s own recordings in an often curious yet incomplete mosaic

Who is Val Kilmer? Is he a former A-lister, whose idiosyncrasies and counter-culture taste made him a Hollywood outcast? Or is he an unbearable egotist who alienated the industry through rude unprofessionalism and impossible demands? One might naively assume that a snazzy new documentary called Val, that recently premiered at Cannes before now heading to cinemas and then Amazon Prime, might hold some answers, weaving its way back through a career of meteoric highs and subterranean lows. But the film’s blessing – unprecedented access to the actor himself and his own personally recorded set of videos – is also its curse, taking us close to him but still at a careful distance, like being invited to his house but made to wait at the door.

It’s an inevitable sacrifice one becomes accustomed to when a star is allowed to co-author their documentary or narrative biopic, a predictable price paid for such access. It shifts expectations, despite press materials using words like “raw” and “unflinching”, downgrading a desire to see pressing questions answered, or even asked, to the more modest pleasure gleaned from moments of controlled intimacy, of seeing something previously hidden, no matter how small. There are interesting flashes of that in Val, patchworked together from the actor’s wealth of footage filmed as he went from set to set, and while the promise of what he has might ultimately outweigh what he ends up giving us, there’s just about enough to make Val an entertaining snapshot, at least until we get to see the bigger picture.

The film is a mosaic of this recently unearthed b-roll mixed with contemporary scenes of Kilmer tied together with an almost constant voiceover. Kilmer’s throat cancer, and the chemotherapy and surgeries that he’s endured to treat it, have affected his voice to the point that it’s often hard to understand him. As his narration starts, there’s jarring concern that we’re about to suffer another Anthony Bourdain AI controversy but in fact, the voice is that of his son, actor Jack Kilmer, who sounds remarkably like his father, an ingenious way to get around a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. We’re taken from his youth, as one of three film-loving and film-making brothers, through to his early career on stage before his handsome looks and commanding presence turned him into a star, whether he wanted to be one or not.

Given Kilmer’s swift ascent to the A-list – the actor is arguably still best known for playing the Caped Crusader - the film does offer an interesting reminder of his Juilliard roots and one of the highlights is a montage of ambitiously constructed audition tapes that he made for films like Full Metal Jacket and Goodfellas, desperate to be taken seriously no matter the cost (he went on a 6,000-mile journey to hand-deliver his tape to Stanley Kubrick). His time at the top, during the mid-90s, is painted as mostly a chore, resorting to “soap acting” in Batman Forever after he realised he was being dwarfed by outsized villains (director Joel Schumacher once called him “childish and impossible”) and having to deal with the notoriously tumultuous set of The Island of Dr Moreau, where stories of him being “difficult” truly started to surface (director John Frankenheimer has said: “I don’t like Val Kilmer, I don’t like his work ethic, and I don’t want to be associated with him ever again.”).

But we’re left frustratingly undernourished by these intermittently intriguing but distractingly guarded anecdotes and the scraps of video that come with them. There’s a wider perspective that’s lacking, a deliberate decision from directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo not to include anyone’s voice but Val’s, and while we get a token “I behaved badly” near the end, there’s not nearly enough introspection surrounding it (it’s quickly followed by “I regret nothing”). His marriage to Joanne Whalley is similarly flattened, shown to us in brief bursts of hazy nostalgia before abruptly ending because of his devotion to work (predictably no mention of her two lawsuits against him for not paying the right amount of child support). It’s pure hagiography and taken as that, it’s skillfully assembled, even stylishly so at times, and Kilmer’s insights into his art skirt just the right side of Inside the Actors Studio indulgence but as a portrait of a star known for his rough edges, it’s all far too smooth.

Who is Val Kilmer? I can’t say I’m really sure.

  • Val is now out in US cinemas and on Amazon Prime on 6 August


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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