In “Val,” the actor Val Kilmer, now in his early 60s, appears before us as a broken-down relic of himself. His face, once beaming and chiseled, with that smile that resembled a bite, now looks soggy and morose, with dark eyebrows that give him an oddly Nixonian cast. More dramatically, he speaks in a thin robotic rasp, the result of a procedure performed on his trachea to heal the throat cancer that was diagnosed in 2015. Kilmer beat the cancer but was left with that scratchy voice-box drone, which takes a bit of getting used to. Yet once you do get used to it, you realize he’s very much the same fellow — or, at least, the older, wiser, more melancholy version. Kilmer used to talk quite fast; that was part of his comic sauvity in films like “Real Genius” — that this dude who looked like a sun god spoke like a geek in overdrive. Everything about him is slower now, and we can see how the effort it takes to speak has changed him. He’s someone who can no longer afford to mince words.
“Val,” directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, is a portrait of Kilmer — actor, celebrity, human being — that is, in many ways, a self-portrait, since it’s built around 40 years’ worth of videos that Kilmer made of himself. He was onto the whole obsession with self-recording ahead of everyone else; he kept a video camera running at home, on movie sets, wherever he was. (It was a bit of a mania.) The film opens with him horsing around in his trailer with Rick Rossovich during the shooting of “Top Gun,” and there’s a funny sequence in which John Frankenheimer, the director of “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” orders Kilmer to stop his video recording, and Kilmer says he’ll do so if Frankenheimer pledges not to leave the movie. In two minutes, we see exactly how the whole “difficult actor” thing works. Kilmer is one of those stars who was branded as difficult, and probably was, but not because he was trying to be a prima donna. He cared about the work — maybe too much. Being difficult was the price he made everyone pay for trapping him in a system he found too little satisfaction in.
Looking at Val Kilmer now, it’s tempting to view him as a man who lost everything: his voice, his looks, his career, his family (it’s clear that his 1996 divorce from Joanne Whalley, the British actress he married in 1988, tore him apart). His puffy wrecked face may remind you, at times, of Mickey Rourke’s, in part because Kilmer now seems the movie-star equivalent of the aging, once-famous fighter Rourke played in “The Wrestler.” At one point Kilmer is at home, with a bunch of stuff on the floor, and there, amid the detritus, is the copy of the Entertainment Weekly “Cool Issue” in which he was on the cover as Batman. As we learn, playing the Caped Crusader was not a winning experience for him, which is why he walked away from the role after just one go. So why does he hold onto that magazine? At one point we see Kilmer at Comic-Con, signing “You can be my wingman anytime” on “Top Gun” posters — a scene right out of “The Wrestler,” though in this case it’s even sadder.
What makes “Val” a good and heartfelt movie, rather than just some glorified movie-star-as-trashed-parody-of-himself piece of reality-show exploitation, is that Kilmer brings the film an incredible sense of self-awareness. He’s had a lot of tragedy in his life, starting with when he was a teenager and one of his brothers died in a Jacuzzi after suffering an epileptic fit. Kilmer says that it left him “raw with grief.” Yet in “Val,” what Val Kilmer presents to us is a kind of italicized version of what so many people go through who are famous. Movie stars tend to have a “moment,” which lasts a certain number of years, and then they’re no longer the shining star on Mount Olympus. They’re still famous, but they’ve come down to earth. In Kilmer’s case, the ups and downs of his career hit us with special poignance, because his fall from the kingdom of stardom was, to a degree, his own doing.
He was a serious actor who went to Juilliard and came up during the hot zone of the 1980s. We see him backstage during the 1983 production of “The Slab Boys,” the hot-ticket Broadway play in which he was shoved into a third-tier role after Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon took dibs on the more plum parts. Yet he was one of those beautiful stars who the machine wanted. His casting in “Top Gun” catapulted him to fame. “For the rest of my life,” he says now, “I will be called Iceman by every pilot at every airport I ever go to.” Did he want the fame? Yes, of course. And no, he wanted something more: to be an inspired actor, making great movies. That was a tough balancing act for anyone who came up in the ’80s.
In “Val,” Kilmer takes us through his career, and in each case the movie he’s shooting becomes a lens through which we get to peer at his shifting mix of ego and idealism. He went after certain roles with a vengeance, making his own audition tapes for movies like “Full Metal Jacket” and “GoodFellas” (he practically stalked Kubrick). Yet for all his actorly ardor, he had a way of blowing opportunities, of picking bad projects like “Willow,” or of simply using his discernment to talk himself out of things he probably should have gone with.
He knew that “The Doors” was special, and spent months wearing leather pants and studying Jim Morrison’s moves, though even there his fixation got to be a bit much — he indicates that it was part of what wrecked his marriage. In 1995, he put on the Batsuit for “Batman Forever,” and it turned out that the Batsuit was what he hated about it; he couldn’t move in the thing, couldn’t hear the other actors, and felt like a puppet. That sounds, perhaps, like an artist talking, until you see the movies that Kilmer said yes to instead, like “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (his chance to work with his idol Brando) or “The Saint.” He began to reject stardom, or at least not to cultivate it, but part of his folly is that he never learned the lesson that people like Tom Cruise understood: that cultivating stardom is the way you get to do good movies. Reject stardom and it may reject you back.
Kilmer still has his kids, and lives adjacent to his daughter, and they are clearly the light of his life. “Val” lingers on his fascination with Mark Twain, who he played in several projects over a period of years, though the film has little to say about his devotion to Christian Science, the religion he grew up with. For most of the 40 years covered in “Val,” Kilmer comes off as a creature of obsession, one who could be his own worst enemy. At his height, there was something entitled about him. Yet he now has the aura of a man who was dealt his cosmic comeuppance and came through it. He fell from stardom, maybe from grace, but he did it his way. And he’s still here, suggesting that grace is something you can climb back to.