CINEMA CLASSICS: Good Will Hunting (1997)

Oscar still remembers Robin Williams with Gus Van Sant’s classic Matt Damon-is-a-genius drama. Eat your heart out, Rain Man. 

Who made it?: Gus Van Sant (Director), Matt Damon, Ben Affleck (Writers), Lawrence Bender (Producer), Miramax.

Who’s in it?: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgård, Minnie Driver, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser.

Tagline: “Wildly charismatic. Impossibly brilliant. Totally rebellious. For the first 20 years of his life, Will Hunting has called the shots. Now he’s about to meet his match.”

IMDb rating: 8.3/10 (Top 250 #122).

Despite the timing of this review, my express desire for reviewing Gus Van Sant’s classic Good Will Hunting is not to merely eulogize Robin Williams. Yes, this is the movie that won him his rightfully-deserved Academy Award, and yes, this performance does speak to many people on many levels. Those I will duly address, but the film as a whole still resonates strongly with me.

Twenty-year-old Will Hunting (Matt Damon) of South Boston is a self-taught genius with an eidetic memory, although he works simply as a janitor at MIT, and spends his free time drinking with his friends Chuckie (Ben Affleck), Billy (Cole Hauser) and Morgan (Casey Affleck). When Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) posts an algebraic graph theory problem for his graduate students, Will solves the problem anonymously to the amazement of the students and Lambeau himself. Lambeau posts an even more difficult problem and chances upon Will solving it. Fearing he will lose his sole means of income, Will flees and skips going into work the next day. That night, Will meets Skylar (Minnie Driver), a British Harvard graduate, who plans on attending medical school at Stanford.

After assaulting both a man who bullied him as a child and a police officer who attempted to break up the fight, Will faces incarceration, but Lambeau arranges for him to forgo jail time if he agrees to study advanced mathematics while simultaneously seeking psychotherapy. Will reluctantly agrees but treats his first few therapists with contempt and defiance. Lambeau then calls on Dr. Sean Maguire (Williams), his estranged college roommate, who now teaches psychology at Bunker Hill Community College. Unlike the other therapists, Sean actually challenges Will’s weak defense mechanisms, and, after a few unproductive sessions, Will begins to open up. Over time, we see how Will deals with the prospects of a relationship with Skylar and his strengthening relationship with Sean.

As far as casts go, this one is pitch-perfect. Damon throws his all into the defensive Will Hunting, bringing out the major insecurities and unbridled intelligence, and subtly showing his cocksure self breaking down over time. Driver is sharp, funny and likeable as Skylar, and she handles all the romantic and emotional scenes with Damon very well. Affleck puts in a solid performance as the loyal but dimwitted Chuckie, and unsurprisingly has great brotherly chemistry with Damon. Skarsgård is provides solid support as Lambeau, who could have been a strongly antagonistic character but is still a well-rounded human being. Other performances from Hauser and Casey Affleck are fine for what they are, though I do find Casey’s character grating to watch.

But onto Robin; this was the first time I saw an actor mainly viewed as a “funny-man” give such a heartfelt, grounded and real performance. His turn here as a psychiatrist determined to help his patient was like a gust of wind knocking me over. Williams was perfect in every way as Sean Maguire, from his brutal honesty to his quiet indignation and empathy in every scene. When Will openly insults Sean’s wife in front of him, you can see the man’s pain, fury and grief, pure and unadulterated. It could well have been Williams’ sadness coming through, cutting through his acting, and to this day, I get shivers down my spine.

The best part of Good Will Hunting, aside from its stellar acting, is the script. This is some of the most naturalistic and smoothly-executed dialogue you’ll ever see in a movie. Damon and Affleck put in a lot of their own experiences growing up as kids in Boston, and that gives the characterisations a realistic grit and edge to them. There is some good, accurate humour to be found, and the best material comes from the interactions between Damon and Williams who effortlessly carry the film with their chemistry. But there is some raunchier bits from Chuckie and his friends. Though, with that said, not all the jokes from the three friends work, and at first, I was worried that the pace would remain on the slow side, but it picked up after fifteen-minutes. The characters’ laughter was so realistic that it was contagious and the audience is laughing along with them. When they cry, it’s genuinely hard to sit through because of how true it all rings.

The score by Danny Elfman, while not his most memorable, is soothing to listen to and fits the mood of a scene very well. The direction by Van Sant is warm and gentle, and makes ample use of the sweeping shots of Boston or the intimate scenes between characters, capturing every little nuance or inflection that shows when someone is starting to break down or make a show of confidence.

Everybody wants Will to succeed and use his potential, but there’s different opinions on how he should use it. Sean forces Will to acknowledge some hard truths about himself, but still has the grace to want to make him a better person. While Lambeau believes that Will has a gift that shouldn’t be wasted, Sean believes that Will needs to have the desire to try first. Even Chuckie selflessly wants what’s best for his friend by telling him that one day he needs to leave Boston and do something with his life, even if it means that he’ll never see him again knowing there’s no way out for himself. Will, despite claiming that he never “asked” for these gifts, is not above practicing them when someone can admire them, and would have thrown his talents away if not for Sean’s counselling which broke him out of self-denial.

To me, the film is about experience versus intelligence; Will for all his intellect is still a “cocky, scared shitless kid,” as Sean puts it. Sean calls Will out on the bullshit, who acts like he knows everything because he technically does, but is still inexperienced. Will sees honour in being an honest janitor or bricklayer, but none in being a professor of mathematics; for him, maths isn’t hard work and therefore has no value. But Sean is quick to remind him that solving complex problems anonymously has no honour and that bricklayers strive to get their children into college to have the opportunities that Will has in front of him. For many in the audience, he comes off as an asinine know-it-all, but it works because the intent is not to portray a typical “likeable character” but a person who could exist in real-life with all the personality flaws that would imply. He’s a very hard protagonist to root for because he says and does a lot of dickish things, but in the end, he’s still a scared kid, barely grown and crying for help, and is still sympathetic on that level overall.

While Will’s personal demons speak to a great many people who have experienced abuse since childhood, the film does reach out even further. It’s also for young people dealing with a lot of guilt, self-blame, and a sense of inferiority and fear at the world. The part where Sean continuously says to Will, “It’s not your fault” over and over resonates so strongly because we all have pent-up negative emotions that are not always released. When Will admits to Skylar that he’s been abused during an argument, he believes she’s only interested in him because she’s trying to “save” him, and he pushes her away because he feels he doesn’t deserve her. It was especially hard to sit through because of Will’s insecurities and rash decisions pushing him to constantly run away from any meaningful relationship for fear of being abandoned.

To this day, Good Will Hunting remains my favourite drama film for its ability to resonate on a wide variety of personal and emotional levels. Some critics in the past have called this film predictable, but I don’t see that as a flaw in any way, because the execution is finely-tuned to near perfection. Even if you could predict that Will was eventually going to resolve his issues, passing it over would leave you deprived of an emotionally-charged and brilliant ending played by a wonderful ensemble cast. Oh, and spearheaded by a world-class performance from the great Robin Williams.

Best Scene

Just superb acting, writing and direction.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • After the 2014 death of Robin Williams, the Boston Public Garden park bench where he and Matt Damon had their conversation scene, became an impromptu memorial site for the actor with people leaving flowers, quotes and various items at the bench. A petition has been passed around to erect a statue in Williams’ memory near the bench.
  • Casey Affleck ad libbed most of his lines. This frustrated Damon, Ben Affleck, and Gus Van Sant during filming – but they later admitted that Casey’s improvised lines were much funnier and better than what had been originally written for him.
  • The job interview Will sends Chuckie on is for a company called Holden & McNeil. Affleck’s character in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997) was Holden McNeil. Smith executive produced Good Will Hunting and later parodied the film in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back (2001).
  • Damon and Affleck found a clever way to choose the right studio for their script: the story goes that on page sixty of the script, they wrote a completely out-of-nowhere sex scene between Will and Chuckie. They took it to every major studio, and nobody even mentioned the scene. When they met with Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, he said, “I only have one really big note on the script. About page sixty, the two leads, both straight men, have a sex scene. What the hell is that?” – Damon and Affleck explained that they put that scene specifically in there to show them who actually read the script and who didn’t. As Weinstein was the only person who brought it up, Miramax was the studio chosen to produce the film.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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