Kilmer documentary ‘Val’ is an unflinching portrait of an artist

This intimate portrait is unlike most biographical docs, thanks in part to the many hours of footage the actor shot himself over decades

Brad Keefe
Val Kilmer in "Val"

I think it may say something about the changing theatrical landscape that this is turning into the summer of… documentaries?

Recent weeks have seen the release of Questlove’s “Summer of Soul,” a brilliant documentary culled from interviews and extensive original footage from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival.

It features jaw-dropping performances from legendary artists, and though it dropped simultaneously on Hulu, it demands to be seen in a theater. If that Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson moment doesn’t give you chills, check your pulse.

Then came “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” from Oscar winner Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”), which is getting both raves and some controversy from the decision to generate a voiceover by Bourdain using AI.

More:The Other Columbus: The meaning of Anthony Bourdain

This week another buzzy festival favorite arrives in theaters with “Val.”

Directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott create a biographical documentary on actor Val Kilmer, pulling extensively from footage the actor filmed himself over decades.

Today, the 61-year-old Kilmer is nearly unrecognizable after years out of the limelight. “Val” is narrated by his son, Jack, in part due to the elder Kilmer’s throat cancer that ended his acting career and made his speech difficult.

“Val” chronicles Kilmer’s early life and interest in acting and filmmaking, including the tragic accidental death of his then-15-year-old brother, which shaped Kilmer for years.

Kilmer’s pursuit of his craft was deep, taking him to Juilliard. From there, the film chronicles his time as a young actor looking for a Hollywood break that would eventually make him a star, and then a star on the wane.

“Val” evokes a similar energy to Mickey Rourke’s performance in “The Wrestler,” and it’s a similarly raw and big-hearted look into an aging star. Along with a chronological retrospective of Kilmer’s filmography, we see him in the modern day, ruminating deeply on his life and his work and attending autograph sessions where he’s consistently asked to sign, “You can be my wingman anytime.”

It has footage from the set of “Top Gun,” the film that would change the trajectory of his career. It documents his one-film stint as Batman. He left that role after one film for an ill-fated opportunity to work with one of his idols, Marlon Brando, in the now-forgotten “Island of Dr. Moreau.”

“Val” is an intimate if imperfect portrait powered by the raw honesty of its subject matter, a fascinating and misunderstood actor who looks to correct some of the narrative. It’s also a fascinating look at the whole craft of acting across the ups and downs of a career very few ever reach.

The documentary is a bit uneven, a bit repetitive at times, but it’s truly unlike most anything you’ve seen, thanks in part to a young actor who documented his life before iPhones existed.


Now playing in theaters, streaming on Amazon Prime on Aug. 6

4 stars out of 5