Val Kilmer: Man of Mystery

Documentary is a window into one of Hollywood’s great eccentrics

Is Val Kilmer misunderstood? After watching Val, I wonder whether the actor has misunderstood himself, most of all. Or if he’s such an eccentric he defies understanding altogether. Either way, this documentary is both great fun and deeply sad, a unique window into a performer who always seemed like he should have been a more omnipresent star in his ’80s and ’90s heyday.


VAL ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Ting Poo, Leo Scott
Running time: 109 min


Directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott, but clearly sculpted by its subject, Val is part of the growing genre of documentaries by actors who’ve obsessively filmed themselves since childhood. Posthumous docs on Heath Ledger and Anton Yelchin were troves of footage by performers fascinated with themselves, but also the business of acting and cinematography. This yields terrifically insidery footage, often with the actors filming themselves filming. It’s an inspired use of solipsism. Sure, we’re all documenting ourselves relentlessly, but unlike Kilmer, YOU don’t have backstage Broadway footage of a dewy Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn mooning your camera. Or the utter insanity behind the scenes of the disastrous would-be blockbuster The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Happily, the 61-year-old Kilmer is still around and with a twinkle in his eye, but a bout with throat cancer has left him with a tracheotomy tube, speaking in a barely-understandable, subtitled rasp. His son Jack, who sounds passably like his father, narrates.

Val begins with footage of Kilmer goofing around as Iceman on the Top Gun set, with Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards, and that guy who went on to be the second lead in Roxanne. He seems to have brought his camera to all of his gigs, often using it to temper his disappointment at being sidelined. That scene with a young Bacon and Penn takes on a little extra meaning when you find out Kilmer was originally slated to play the lead – until Bacon became available. And then he was the second lead, until Penn became available.

I come to Val as a fan of the actor’s lighter work. Top Secret! is one of my favorites, and I think Real Genius doesn’t get enough love. I’m a Batman Forever defender; Kilmer’s lone entry in the Bat-canon is the most deliciously campy of all. Turns out he hated being Batman, couldn’t move in the suit, and decided to play it soap opera-style, emoting mostly via putting his hands on his hips. Tombstone isn’t a comedy, but Kilmer’s Doc Holliday adds a wonderfully over-the-top touch –and, at the end, one of the most moving deathbed scenes I can think of (the Method-y Kilmer requested they pack his bed with ice so he really felt the pain).

I’ve watched him give deadly dull performances in later dramas, most disastrously the 2017 Jo Nesbo adaptation The Snowman. A glance at his resume shows he’s been in a LOT of direct-to-video bombs. So it bums me out to hear him diss what I consider his most enduring work. I remember reading an interview with the makers of Top Secret! in which they talk about how Kilmer showed up to play the lead in the silly spy satire, his first movie, with the utmost seriousness. He does have some feeling for Tombstone, and its rabid fans. But Real Genius doesn’t merit anything here more than a quick cutaway to a movie poster. Oliver Stone’s The Doors is the sweet spot, a role the actor finally felt was juicy enough for him, and a performance so iconic it’s hard not to conflate Kilmer’s face with Jim Morrison’s.

Regrettably, Kilmer isn’t into discussing some of his more eyebrow-raising beliefs, from his Christian Science-tinged longtime refusal to acknowledge his cancer, to believing that his car once collided with another and passed right through it. The doc does explore a foundational tragedy, the death of his beloved brother at 15. And it doesn’t shy away from the physical and emotional discomfort he feels on the convention circuit, a humiliation that also rewards him with some of the adulation he feels he’s been denied by the film industry.

One of the overarching themes of Val is his yearning for people to take him seriously, befitting a classically trained Julliard grad. This seems to be the root of his rep for being an asshole. For someone so perceptive, he seems to have been totally unable to make his peace with Hollywood’s inherent ridiculousness. Unlike his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (another great one!) co-star Robert Downey Jr., Kilmer failed to ever just lean into what audiences wanted from him, and to embrace his own facility for humor.

And this is a guy who worships Mark Twain! Kilmer spent the year before his diagnosis touring a one-man show in which he played an elderly Twain. He sold his New Mexico ranch to fund the show and a possible film. He wanted to take it to Broadway. And then illness struck.

Near the end, Kilmer laments the world never perceiving that underneath his chiseled veneer is “the soul of a clown” – but he clearly also seems to regard clowning as a lower art form. That dissonance is both our loss, and his. But he’ll always be our huckleberry.

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Sara's work can be fully appreciated at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

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