Written and directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott
Starring Val Kilmer, Jack Kilmer, Mercedes Kilmer, Joanne Whaley
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings- nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And, which is more- you’ll be a Man, my son!”
The life of Val Kilmer is one of dreams fulfilled and trusts shattered, guided by drive and an undying spirituality that has played out as a beautiful but damaged mosaic.
Thanks to their access to decades of self-filmed video footage, directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott have taken us into the world, mind, and soul of Val Kilmer, one of the most popular and talented actors of his generation.
In the new Amazon Studios documentary, “Val”, the filmmakers let Kilmer narrate his own story. The words are all his and the endless hours of footage are pieced together to tell his story somewhat fluidly. More importantly, the editing of the footage allows the real and complex Val Kilmer to be seen for the first time.
Decades of bad press gave him a reputation for being difficult and angering directors. Some of the footage here lets us see the reasons for that undeserving reputation and give us a better understanding of the man during that time. A struggle to find the parts that contained the type of acting he loved, poor business decisions involving his father, and an unexpected divorce colored Kilmer’s life during the 1990s. Even the strongest of souls would crack a little under the pressures the actor had to endure.
As his ability to speak has been seriously hindered due to the tracheotomy he received from cancer, the narration (written by Kilmer) is done by his son, Jack. As much as his daughter Mercedes is the near mirror image of her mother, Joanne Whaley, Jack is (in sight and sound) very much his father’s son. Hearing this voice that is so close to Val’s makes the experience even more touching.
A complicated relationship with success followed Kilmer throughout his career. The actor is Juilliard trained but Hollywood rarely saw beyond his leading man looks.
While Kilmer did award worthy work in many interesting projects (“The Doors”, “Thunderheart”, and especially “Tombstone”), it was his decision to play Batman (after Michael Keaton hung up the cape) that began to sour Kilmer on the process.
It is heartbreaking to hear the actor speak of every kid’s lifelong dream to be a superhero on film, only to find his personal childhood dream (he always wanted to be Batman) crushed once he signed on for Joel Schumacher’s sequel.
Kilmer was disappointed to learn the suit allowed no real performance to come through and that, as the lead, he could bring nothing valuable to the role. He laments that he soon discovered he was basically a prop.
Although doing a film such as “Batman Forever” is a one-off for a serious actor, we can see the regret and disappointment on his face.
Val Kilmer has nothing to hide, as the film gives us many behind the curtain moments into his life and his time making films. A treasure trove of home movies and on set footage tells his story, warts, and all. It is admirable that Kilmer allowed such an uncensored access to his life.
Directors Poo and Scott do a marvelous job of putting everything together. As Kilmer tells us at the beginning, “I’ve kept everything.”
Kilmer speaks lovingly, but with a profound sadness about his family. He loved his father despite the other women that led to his parents’ divorce when he always only 8 and his father using Val’s name to cover up shady land dealings. His love for his mother comes in more than a few wonderful moments where he goes through his memories of her as a person so full of life. The moment after her death where Kilmer sits on a bed, adorned in his mother’s Southwestern jewelry and cries, brought genuine tears to my own eyes. It is a moment that reminds us that our family will not always be here but, as Kilmer has done through photography and videos, their memories are always with us.
Just as Val was going off to New York for college and achieve his dreams, his younger brother Wesley died at only 15 after having an epileptic seizure. This destroyed Val and his family. As he narrates, “Our family was never the same.”
While he has come to terms with a certain overzealousness in the beginning of his film career and a stubbornness that planted the seeds of his bad reputation in the 90s, Kilmer has learned from it all. He accepts his flaws but is still hurt by the scarlet letter of being “difficult” during that time. So much so that the film includes a short montage of colleagues who dispel that myth.
It is true that there is a moment that finds him being antagonistic to an equally confrontational John Frankenheimer during the filming of “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, but the actor was blindsided by a divorce and contractually stuck on a film that was doomed from the start. Let alone the fact that he was saddled with a director who didn’t want to be there in the first place.
It was a tough personal time for Val Kilmer and the hardest shoot of his career. He is forgiven and I hope he can forgive himself.
After having to take roles in so many straight-to-video clunkers (to pay off debts due to his divorce and unexpected financial hardships), Kilmer found his spark once again in his well-received one man show about Mark Twain.
We see Kilmer come alive in trying to bring the play to the screen after so many successful performances. Then came the cancer that halted it all. Many a strong soul would lose all hope. Kilmer hasn’t. To hear him speak of it is inspiring beyond measure.
Kilmer might be physically and financially “off-course” due to the cancer that tried to kill him and the familial hardships he endured, but he is still able to see the beauty in it all through his children, his art, his career, and most importantly, his life. Dark clouds have passed over him through the years, but he never gave up on anything nor anyone, especially himself.
His is a life well lived and journey that it is not yet over.
“Val” is a fascinating and profoundly moving documentary that is full of truth and sadness, triumph, and love. The same can be said about Val Kilmer.
As the song from “Fiddler in the Roof” says, “God would like us to be joyful, even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.”
To life, Mr. Kilmer!
R, 109 Minutes, A24/Amazon Studios