Amazon's Documentary 'Val' Wants to Change the Way You Think About Val Kilmer
The 'Top Gun' and 'Heat' actor turns the camera on himself in this intimate portrait of his thwarted ambitions.
Like many celebrities, Val Kilmer wants to set the record straight. Last year, he published I'm Your Huckleberry, a memoir that chronicles his life as a young actor at Juilliard and his experience filming cinematic touchstones like Real Genius, Top Gun, Willow, The Doors, Batman Forever, and Heat. As part of the promotional rollout for the book, he was interviewed for revealing, widely-shared profiles in The New York Times Magazine and Men's Health, which chronicled his battle with throat cancer and detailed his recent creative pursuits. Now, Amazon has released Val, an A24-produced documentary that toggles between behind-the-scenes footage Kilmer captured as a rambunctious young star and scenes of him moving through the world as a much older man who now speaks through a voice box that only functions if he holds a finger over a tube on his throat.
With its emphasis on the craft of acting and the pursuit of artistic excellence, Val self-consciously serves as a corrective to the years of Kilmer being described in the press as "difficult" or "erratic." His on-set disagreements with directors like John Frankenheimer (The Island of Dr. Moreau) and Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever) are legendary. "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," said Frankenheimer in a 1996 Entertainment Weekly article. Schumacher, in one of his final interviews before his death in 2020, called Kilmer "psychotic." Val makes the case for Kilmer being, if not misunderstood, a more complicated figure than the headlines and the controversies would suggest.
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As a young actor, Kilmer was unapologetically ambitious. In one of the most charming early parts of the film, directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo show clips from audition tapes that Kilmer shot for projects like Full Metal Jacket and Goodfellas. He flew to England to deliver the tape to Kubrick himself, but did not get the role. Though he broke out with roles in comedies like 1984's Top Secret! and 1985's Real Genius, Kilmer remains most commonly associated with his appearance as the ego-driven Iceman in 1986's Top Gun, the intimidating pretty boy flip side to Tom Cruise's more virtuous Maverick. (He'll have a role in the sequel Top Gun: Maverick when it arrives in theaters in November.) In '90s movies like Tombstone, The Doors, and Heat, he got to show off his range, trying on different hairstyles and voices. For a moment, he was one of the most exciting actors in the world. But, looking back at his filmography, there's a nagging sense that he could have accomplished more.
Depending on your fondness for Kilmer, Val will either be tremendously poignant or mildly frustrating. So much of contemporary pop culture, particularly comedies like Barry, Extras, or Entourage (which Kilmer appeared on), approaches acting from a defensive satiric crouch. The skill involved is often diminished and the desire for fame is placed at the center; discussions of intent or method are framed as indulgent. Val is a tremendously earnest movie, one that attempts to tell a story about "truth and illusion" in the most intimate way possible, recruiting Kilmer's son Jack to read his father's own words and taking you into Kilmer's daily life. The image of Kilmer needing to take a break from signing Top Gun posters at a convention because he has to throw up in a bucket is harrowing. Footage of him deciding to sell acres of land in New Mexico is less compelling.
Kilmer takes his work seriously, but, as the documentary displays, he also has a playfulness about himself and his image. The clips from his recent stage show about Mark Twain, the moments where he's joking with his children, and the bits of him fooling around with his Top Gun costars all show a performer who thrives on collaboration, whether it's with an audience or just his fellow actors. At the same time, the bits of Kilmer arguing with Frankenheimer on set, which are presented in a slightly removed manner, or spraying silly string at people also make him seem genuinely annoying, like the type of stubborn person who just doesn't know when to quit.
In its collage-like approach, pinging between the past and the present, the film can also feel jumbled or incomplete at times, pushing a performance of vulnerability instead of offering up genuine insight or candor. Still, like the fascinating figure at its center, the movie admirably never stops searching for answers.
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