Val Kilmer, famous Hollywood star of such pictures as Tombstone (1993), The Doors (1991), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), and The Prince of Egypt (1998), was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015. Multiple surgeries and laborious chemotherapy sessions later, he had overcome the malignant disease, but his voice was left permanently impaired. Now, he lives his life with the burden of a hole in his neck, one that only allows a single function at a time, meaning he constantly has to choose between breathing and speaking. When he does press his finger up to the hole, the only way he can muster his voice to emerge, it is a raspish, weak expression that projects a greater sense of infirmity than Kilmer truly possesses. As an actor by trade, such an affliction is nigh insurmountable, entirely inhibiting the trajectory of his career forthwith. Up until now, Kilmer’s filmography has been one of great variety and interest. Oscillating between various supporting roles for big names directors and making memorable impacts in some of the most noteworthy blockbusters of the era, Kilmer has always managed to stand out as an ideal mix of movie star and actor. But with his thespian skills now mortally handicapped, Kilmer has been forced to cannibalize his once prosperous body of work to maintain social relevance. In one of the film’s more sobering stretches, we see the actor robotically applying his autograph to an endless array of headshots from his iconic role in Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986). He laments his lot in life, peddling a former version of himself at various conventions around the country, before a medical emergency interrupts his commerce in much the same way it has his career proper.
The biographical structure of Val derives from the abundance of home footage Kilmer has dedicated his life to recording. The film is comprised entirely of this old VHS footage, in addition to the new material shot for the contemporary commentary framing the narrative. From his early youth shooting bootleg versions of his favorite films with his younger brother Wesley — a creative bastion of inspiration who tragically died from an epilectic episode in the family’s jacuzzi at the age of 15 — to his spirited days as the youngest attendee of Julliard at the time, there is a wealth of archival footage exploring the early days of Kilmer’s performative career. As with any work that aims to assemble and preserve any amount of historical footage, the merit of Val’s endeavor is solely secured by this simple act of presentation. To see the world of early 1980s America through the eyes of a burgeoning stage actor who then transitions their way into some of the most popular and influential films of the decade is an inherently valuable subject worthy of documentation, but to utilize that archive as a springboard for exploring the inner workings and journey of an actor is yet another step in validating its worth. Kilmer states explicitly in his narration of the film (with voice provided by his strikingly similar-looking son, Jack Kilmer), that he’s always wanted to make a film about what it means to be an actor. Val is ostensibly that: a look at the trials and tribulations of a performer piecing together the raison d’être of their life’s work.
Whether or not this film is ultimately a successful embodiment of that lifelong goal remains to be seen, however. Kilmer’s affirmed mission statement conjures up a much grander portrait of an artist than the exploration we ultimately get. Despite the abrupt conclusion brought upon his career, there’s quite a lot of ground to be covered from his first starring role in the Zucker Brothers parody film Top Secret! (1984) to the most recent success of his one-man show chronicling the life of American author Mark Twain. In total, there’s about four decades worth of film work there to go over, with each entry marking a pivotal point in the development of his career. All of it is essential as a function of his overview, and requires balancing with the equalling important personal developments of his life, including his marriage and divorce to actress Joanne Whalley, the birth of their two kids, the deaths of his father and mother, and other important life events. Because there is so much to go over in the life of Val Kilmer, and because so many of his experiences have been well-preserved for posterity, the film often feels rushed in trying to fit it all in. Everything that’s worth exploring is gone over here, but perhaps not in as much detail as one would like. Which events in Kilmer’s life and career are prioritized for examination remains uncertain in their purpose. For instance: a great deal of time is spent discussing the birth and celebration of his daughter Mercedes, while his relationship with his son Jack is only explored through the cursory footage we see of the two in the contemporary interviews. His film work is likewise addressed with seeming inconsistency. Kilmer’s dedication to embodying the enigmatic persona of Jim Morrison for Oliver Stone’s biopic The Doors is covered in great detail, while the infamously calamitous production of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) — in which Kilmer starred alongside a stated idol of his, Marlon Brando — is only shown briefly as the combined low point of his career alongside the titanic failure of Batman Forever (1995).
The sheer amount of filmography demanding to be covered here leaves little room for interpretation of the actor’s plight beyond the narrow and personal purview of Kilmer’s trajectory. We see him struggle to find footing in various roles, competing with the polar demands of a genuine performer striving to breathe life into cinematic characters, and the entertaining allure of a bonafide movie star embodying the role of a box office idol. This never really feels like a universal portrait, though, as the lens of Kilmer’s specific career juxtaposed with the influence of his home life on his work only gives us the perspective of one man’s experience. As a document of that individual’s life and work, Val adequately portrays the various highs and lows of a compelling personality and the various marks they’ve left on popular culture as a result of their efforts. The unique medical tragedy that blunted Kilmer’s functionality as a performer adds a layer of intrigue to his story, as the film can now operate as a meditation of his life’s ambitions and the ultimate culmination of his contributions to the screen. It’s still a waffling account of Kilmer’s lengthy body of work — omitting almost everything from his post Prince of Egypt career — but a personally detailed and insightful one nonetheless. Its value as a constructed document of a single life and career is assured despite its scattershot nature, and above all it is inspiring to witness Kilmer find new avenues of personal expression in spite of his debilitating malady.