What happens when you bring together two of the best actors of the modern age who meet at just the right time in their careers? The short answer is that you get some old-fashioned movie making magic. Both men have made their mark on Hollywood and this film that they carry together is one of the reasons for that happening. While a generation sets them apart, their commitment to the craft of acting shines through in this classic film that takes place in the city of Boston where I currently reside titled ‘Good Will Hunting.’
‘Good Will Hunting’, released in 1997, over twenty years ago is a film that I have gone back to again and again throughout the years since I grew up with it in a way. As I have gotten older, the themes of the film stick with me more and more. This film is a timeless piece that a lot of people, especially young men, can relate to. While it’s not a blockbuster and isn’t a mainstream favorite, it carries deep messages regarding relationships, dealing with the future, and learning to love and trust other people.
The two actors that I was referring to earlier are Robin Williams and Matt Damon. Both men are known for their more popular roles in movies like ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ and ‘Good Morning, Vietnam for Mr. Williams and ‘The Bourne Trilogy’ movies and ‘The Departed’ for Mr. Damon. Unlike those other movies, I believe that this movie really shows off the talent of these two men and how they’re able to push each other in emotionally trying roles. On top of those two performances, Gus Van Sant is an excellent director who does a great job of filming this movie set in late 1990s Boston.
As if that weren’t enough, you have a great cast of supporting actors including Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver (has she been in any major movies since?), Stellan Skarsgard, and Casey Affleck of Manchester-by-the-Sea fame who really add depth and substance to this movie. These character-driven movies such as ‘Good Will Hunting’ are usually the hardest to make but if done right, they really stay with the viewer long after the film is over. They really capture different moods, emotions, and feelings and this one in particular captures the struggles inherent in being a brilliant mind in a troubled world.
The title of this film ‘Good Will Hunting’ is based off the name of its main character, Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) a 20-year old, born and raised in South Boston. You would think from this description that he’s just a regular guy but Mr. Hunting was born with the innate gift of having genius level intellect. He has few possessions except for hundreds of books from Foucault to Shakespeare. He’s an avid book reader but has a specialty in solving advanced mathematical equations that few others in the world can figure out. You would think that this college-aged guy would be working on advanced mathematics at MIT or CalTech but he’s not an enrolled student there or anywhere for that matter.
Will Hunting has had a rough upbringing in that his parents abandoned him when he was a baby and he grew up in foster homes where his foster father abused him physically multiple times. Abandoned by those people who were supposed to love and cherish him, Will, for good reason has a fear of abandonment and does not trust other people. His social interactions are limited because of the abusive childhood he endured but he is happy with his group of three friends: Billy, Morgan, and his best friend Chuckie. While Will does not have many friends, he would do anything for his three neighborhood buddies who he grew up with and he literally considers them to be his family.
While Will’s friends are loyal, they are not the best influence on him and they can be crass, crude, and spend too much time drinking. The group’s antics lead Will into a fight against some neighborhood miscreants, which draws the attention of the local police. Will, acting out his aggression violently, ends up assaulting a police officer causing him to do mandatory community service and therapy sessions. Will, a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, works after hours to help clean the bathrooms and empty the waste paper baskets. Unbeknownst to both students and professors alike, Will in his spare time has been going around solving advanced Math equations that the regular MIT graduate students can’t even begin to conceive a solution for. One night, Will is caught in the act as he gets caught doing an extremely difficult problem that no one else has solved yet. Professor Lambeau of the Mathematics department discovers Will solving this problem and calls after him to no avail but with a four-letter crude response from Mr. Hunting.
Professor Lambeau does Will a huge favor and gets him out of some serious jail time for assaulting the police officer. In exchange for his favor, Will has to sit and work with Professor Lambeau on advanced mathematics in a mutual exchange. Professor Lambeau is fascinated by Will’s brilliance but it appears to the audience that he cares more just about Will’s brain than who he is as a person. Professor Lambeau tries to get Will to open up to different psychiatrists but Will messes with all of them and doesn’t take his therapy sessions seriously. Lambeau, out of options, goes to an old friend from his college days at MIT, Sean Maguire (played by Robin Williams), who now teaches psychology at Bunker Hill Community College and is also a licensed therapist.
Despite a few sessions where Will is argumentative and closed off, Sean is able to break down Will’s defensive mechanisms partly by talking about his own rough upbringing. Sean was beat by his alcoholic father while he was a child. In an effort to protect his mother and little brother, Sean would endure the brunt of his father’s anger and vitriol. The two men bond over the fact that they have a high intellect, have both grown up in Boston, share a love of the Red Sox, have had rough upbringings, and can be a bit closed off from their loved ones.
Will is going through a transition period in his young life where he is starting to think about a future beyond just getting drunk with his buddies and hiding his talents from the world. He is also trying his best to form healthy relationships with not only his friends but in his love life too. Instead of endlessly pursuing casual one-night stands, Will finds a girl one night at a Harvard bar whom peaks his interest named Skylar (played by Minnie Driver). Despite them coming from very different family backgrounds as well as her being born into wealth, they share a love for learning and have the same sense of humor. Most important to Will in all of this courting is that she likes his friends and that means a lot to him since they have essentially been his family his whole life.
The problem that Will struggles with in terms of his relationships whether its romantic with Skylar or personal with Sean is that he can’t open up to them about his being abused as a child due to a mixture of shame, guilt, and anger. He turns his emotional pain outward and directs that anger at society, the past therapists, Professor Lambeau, and even at Will and Skylar. Will is self-conscious about his genius and is not sure he wants to have a prestigious office job or even to leave his home city of Boston. He says to his best friend, Chuckie, at one point that he doesn’t “feel like doing long division in a room for the rest of my life.”
However, what Will realizes is that he’s not the center of the world. With the help of Sean and Skylar, he learns eventually that while his life has been tragic, that should not prevent him from reaching his true potential and that he is literally “bound by nothing.” He’s a genius of great intellectual capacity who can change the world in a number of ways. Will has a great gift that a lot of people would kill to have including his best friend, Chuckie. As Chuckie puts to Will bluntly towards the end of the movie, “You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too chicken to cash in on it.” Chuckie tells Will that he’ll essentially be working construction until he retires which is fine because he doesn’t have Will has and that Will owes it not only to himself but to him and his other buddies to do more with his life.
Sean also is the father figure that Will never had and is able to give him tough life. Sean was also abused as a child and knows where Will is coming from. However, he has to learn how to put the past behind him and to not blame himself for what had happened because it simply wasn’t his fault. Will was an innocent child and can’t be blamed for such a horrific event. Will has to learn again how to be emotionally open and vulnerable with the people who care about him like Sean and Skylar. Will had lost the inability to love and be loved but it’s never too late to get that back.
The mentorship of Sean throughout the film helps to bring Will around and the time they share together in the therapy sessions make them true friends. Sean is able to tell Will that he is not so special in the fact that his life has been extraordinarily difficult. Sean, himself, fought in the Vietnam War as a young man and had his best friend there die in his arms. He also lost his wife, the one true love of his to a long battle with cancer years ago and hasn’t been able to become romantically involved with anyone since then. However, he implores Will to also see the beauty in life such as in the form of a woman who can ‘level you with her eyes’ and be your own angel.
There are also the wonders of the world that Will can experience such as how it smells in the Sistine Chapel in Italy. Will may be an intellectual genius but he still has a lot to learn about the beauty and ugliness of life. Sean’s experiences help to enlighten Will about what life is all about and how to persevere through the struggles and setbacks that are inevitable. Both men have their inner demons to battle but they encourage each other to become better, to strive for more, and to live good lives. With Will’s urging, Sean is also ready to put his tragic past behind him to begin anew. He sets out to travel the world, meet a special someone like Will has with Skylar, and truly live life again.
The positive mentorship between Will and Sean is a beautiful thing to see develop over the course of the film. To see true friendship between the two and the chemistry that Damon and Williams have in their scenes together makes ‘Good Will Hunting’ a really special movie. Similar to ‘Lost In Translation’, it’s also nice to see a true romance between Will and Skylar develop as well that starts out very inconspicuously. It’s a young, innocent kind of love that is beautiful to watch and it’s both real and raw to see with how much they truly care for each other and want to best for one another. One of the best lines in the film that Will and Sean both use for courting the special women in their lives is “Sorry, I had to go see about a girl.” Is there anything in modern cinema that can compare to this phrase so simple yet so full of meaning? I don’t think so.