I didn’t know about Val Kilmer’s battle with throat cancer before this film. Blame my inability to keep up with the latest celebrity news or the fact that Kilmer has always struggled to remain a prominent presence in Hollywood media, but the ads for VAL—the new documentary on his past, present, and possible future—took me by surprise. After undergoing two tracheostomies, Kilmer now speaks by plugging his airway, his words aided by displayed subtitles. But this isn’t so much the story of Kilmer’s recent medical history as it is his entire history. Here, with the help of his son narrating for him, he opens the nerves of his life wide open for us to see.
Kilmer has hours and hours of home video he’s taken throughout his life, both in personal and professional environments, none of it made public before now—and these videos take up the bulk of the documentary’s content. The immediate question that comes to mind is Why? The answer isn’t outright given but strong lines can be drawn to his need to videotape everything and the loss of his brother Wesley at age 15, his childhood artistic muse, the compelling force behind their video projects, many of which we’re treated to. The result is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at multiple stages of Kilmer’s life from his start in theatre with up-and-comers like Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn to major Hollywood productions. This veil of loss is drawn over every home video Kilmer makes, adding emotional layers to what otherwise may be considered just fly-on-the-wall footage.
I’ve always enjoyed Kilmer as an actor. He’s the Hollywood heartthrob with a soul. A smooth and soothing voice with intelligence in his eyes. But it’s true that since the 2000s he’s struggled to maintain in the public eye, either because of unfair reputations or his desire to pursue more meaningful art. Much of the film, in fact, is focused on his torn feelings between his lucky career and his need to undertake more artistically fulfilling work. Quite simply, he just cares that much about the work, and when you understand that, his career begins to make more sense. I think I’ve seen BATMAN FOREVER over twenty times (it’s a good film and I will fight you over this) and he’s great in the role, but the reality of that role’s isolation is made clear to us in VAL; how Kilmer felt half-paralyzed in that suit every day, how he couldn’t hear through it and therefore wasn’t engaged with on set, how it became impossible for him to contribute let alone feel like he could invest in the role like an actor. So many actors would jump at the chance to play Batman for the career move and paycheque and happily hit their marks and growl their lines, but to see it stomp Kilmer’s passion, to see the excitement of possibility drain from his face, it’s easy to empathize with him and his decision to turn down the sequel.
The documentary offers much to broad audiences, be they casual admirers of Kilmer’s or working artists or behind-the-scenes enthusiasts. But the film is difficult. Poetic, but difficult. Like Kilmer says, he’s lived a magical life, and he’s a remarkable person. I suppose if you put most lives under a microscope like this, it will be filled with as much sorrow as joy. If anything, the film should leave you a little bleary-eyed, if not full-on sobbing, while simultaneously leaving you with a rekindled creative fire burning anew. Don’t squander any time.
VAL is now streaming on Amazon Prime.