Two movies on Amazon Prime—Robin Wright's Land, available for rent on the service, and Ting
Poo and Leo Scott's Val, free with a membership—present contrasting visions of people on singular paths. The first is a feature film about a woman driven by
tragedy to homestead in the Wyoming wilderness, avoiding all contact with others. The second is a documentary about the actor Val Kilmer, a notoriously eccentric and
difficult character who finds himself at a crossroads after suffering a career-shattering calamity.
Land, with a screenplay by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, is simple and lyrical. Edee (Wright) flees her home in Chicago for a
remote, dilapidated cabin, abandoning her rental car and throwing her iPhone in the trash. After the deaths of her husband Adam (Warren Christie) and small son Drew (Finlay
Wojtak-Hissong), Edee seeks nothing but oblivion—and very nearly gets it.
Wandering her magnificent new surroundings, Edee is haunted by constant memories of Adam and Drew. Those memories distract her from
learning how to deal with the predictable threats in her harsh new environment, such as a marauding bear and a blizzard. She is lying on the floor of her cabin, half-frozen
and half-starved, when two neighbors come to her rescue—Miguel (Demian Bichir), a hunter, and Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge), a nurse.
The rest of Land is devoted to Edee regaining her strength with the help of Miguel and Alawa, who are the only other substantial
characters in the story. Under Miguel's tutelage, Edee learns to be a competent homesteader, and begins to form a connection with him. So she is puzzled when Miguel,
confident she can now care for herself, abruptly leaves.
Land is essentially a solo piece for Wright. Pledge and especially Bichir
make strong impressions, but it is the sharp delicacy of Wright's performance that dominates the film. Aided by the gorgeous photography
by Bobby Bukowski and the poignant music by Ben Sollee, Wright gives us a memorable portrait of a woman for whom surviving grief is synonymous
with physical survival. In the end, Land reminds us—as it should—that no one is an island, and that life is worth living.
Land is the portrait of a loner; Val is the story of a man who has been
fiercely alone all his life, even when moving among some of the most renowned show-business figures of his time, and who has the video footage to prove it.
"I was the first person I knew to own a video camera," Val Kilmer states at the beginning of Val, and he seems to have recorded every event in his life,
large and small. Kilmer brought in Leo Scott to edit the material, amounting to more than 800 hours; Ting Poo joined the project later.
From a jumble of film clips recorded over the past forty-odd years, the directors create Kilmer's apologia pro vita sua. It leaves out the nastier
stories that Kilmer has always denied, and contains no footage of people who might be less than kind in their assessment of Kilmer. But for all that Val feels bracingly, touchingly honest.
Val spans Kilmer's life from his teen years in the San Fernando Valley, the
son of a real estate developer, to his current predicament as a victim of throat cancer, his voice a barely decipherable croak. (Most of the narration of Val is handed over to Kilmer's son Jack.) Most of the early footage in Val was recorded by Kilmer's brother Wesley, an aspiring filmmaker who
cast his brothers in homemade parodies of hit films. Wesley drowned at fifteen, suffering an epileptic seizure in the family's Jacuzzi, and that early
tragedy has colored the rest of Kilmer's life. (Showing a clip from Real Genius, Kilmer's 1985 starring film, Scott and Poo point out that some of
the drawings posted on the wall of Kilmer's movie dorm room are Wesley's.)
Kilmer was admitted to the acting program at Juilliard at 16, the youngest
student there to that point. Upon graduation, he was cast as the lead in a Broadway play, Slab Boys—only to be demoted to second lead when Kevin
Bacon became available, then to third lead when Sean Penn became available. According to Kilmer, that has been the consistent pattern of his
career. "I've always been fired from all of my movies, whenever they start looking for someone else," he says.
There is plenty of footage of Bacon and Penn (who obligingly moon Kilmer's camera); of Kilmer and Tom Cruise on the set of Top Gun (on
which Kilmer had to create an elaborate backstory for the underwritten role of Iceman); of Kilmer and Kurt Russell on the set of Tombstone (which
they directed themselves after the original director washed out); of Kilmer in his career-defining performance as Jim Morrison, a role that consumed
him to the detriment of his marriage; of Kilmer and Robert De Niro on the set of Heat. There is also plenty of footage of Kilmer's turn as Batman and
of Kilmer and Marlon Brando on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Batman Forever and The Island of Dr. Moreau were the two most troubled
productions of Kilmer's career. All his life, he explains, he wanted to play Batman. But when he finally did, the constricting rubberized Batsuit and
Bathood ruined his performance, whereas co-stars Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones dined on the scenery. The Island of Dr. Moreau was an even
worse experience for Kilmer, and some who were on that set insist he made it a terrible experience for them too. He accuses director John
Frankenheimer of stamping out the last few sparks of the actor who had once been Brando—a claim that others dispute. An audio tape of an
argument between Kilmer and Frankenheimer, included on Val's soundtrack, is expectedly acrid. But the tales of Kilmer's misbehavior on
that set—which, more than any others, established his reputation for being uniquely difficult—are not addressed.
What Val does address is Kilmer's current state, its sorrows and its
consolations. In 2013, he began touring in a one-man show about Mark Twain, using a script he wrote himself, because he identified with the
tragedies Twain suffered. Two years later, throat cancer ended those performances, though the Internet Movie Database lists two post-2015
Twain projects for Kilmer. Meanwhile, Kilmer makes the rounds of fan conventions. One clip shows him getting sick at Comic-Con and having to
leave via wheelchair. Immediately after, we see him in tears. "I'm selling my old life, my old career!" he says.
Kilmer's consolations consist largely of his relationships with his son Jack
and daughter Mercedes. Kilmer speaks of falling in love with Jack and Mercedes' mother, Joanne Whalley. He does not discuss their divorce or
child custody battles. But whatever happened, Jack and Mercedes clearly love him, and he them.
Val is exactly as we would expect—the story of Val Kilmer's life as told from
his viewpoint. What we might not expect is how much that story moves us. Kilmer comes across as courageous, spiritual, ready to sacrifice himself for
the sake of his family. Whatever sins of omission he may commit here will undoubtedly be corrected by other sources, if they haven't been already. Meanwhile, Val is a compelling documentary about a man who has always
gone his own way, for better or worse.