Gus Van Sant’s to-the-letter conventional drama is cinematic comfort food at its best. Fifteen years on from its monumentally over-exposed Oscar run and Oscar victory for awestruck Hollywood newbies Matt and Ben, 'Good Will Hunting' remarkably still remains a highly watchable film. The successful careers of both these guys, as actors and filmmakers, is a testament to the effort behind the scenes to launch their careers and make a poignant and lasting coming-of-age film for working class males.
Good Will Hunting (1997) dir. Gus Van Sant
Starring: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgård
By Alan Bacchus
In terms of story, perhaps the real triumph of this film is the ability of Damon/Affleck/Van Sant to surmount the ridiculous concept that there exists such a character as Will Hunting, a good-looking charismatic guy's guy who works as a measly janitor but is mind smart enough to be one of the world’s top mathematicians. Not to mention he’s a man who can quote Shakespeare, rattle off passages from obscure American history texts and any other academic study you can think of.
Good Will Hunting does just this by making virtually every scene a memorable one. Sure, the story of two out-of-work actors writing a high priced, in-demand Hollywood screenplay is a great story, one which likely influenced the Academy voters at the time, but Damon's and Affleck’s screenplay is as close to structural perfection as it comes and deserving of its win.
The dialogue exchanges in the film have the same intricacies as the best work of David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin. The scenes with Robin Williams and Matt Damon in particular are the showcase pieces in the film. Williams’ Sean Maguire character is not-so-subtly influenced by Judd Hirsch’s character in Ordinary People, the bearded psychologist who provided warm and comforting therapy to Timothy Hutton’s tortured character.
Here, Sean is hired by his old roommate, math professor Gerald Lambeau (Skarsgård), to counsel Will in the days before his 21st birthday, when he’s free of his juvenile status. The iron will of fellow Southie, Sean, is an unlikely match for Will’s uber-intelligent wit and repartee. Each visit feels like it's crafted with the precision of a set piece. Each of the half-dozen scenes are shot with their own flavour. At first it's a passive aggressive intellectual arm wrestle with Will feeling out the new doctor while testing for weaknesses. Then it's a quiet staring contest followed by Sean's analysis of Will, which completely disarms his intellectual edge. And then it's Will countering Sean, forcing the doctor to look inward at his own social deficiencies. The last scene featuring Will's final catharsis cleverly skirts cliché yet provides us with maximum melodrama and waterworks.
In between this core relationship Matt and Ben craft well-drawn portraits of familiar characters: Will's homeboy buddies from Southie, specifically Chuckie, who seems to have little impact on the story until Ben Affleck's deeply affecting speech to Will about his responsibility to his friends to use his intellectual gifts; and Lambeau, who serves as the only antagonist, has his own rich parallel backstory with Sean, and provides its own share of shouting matches and male vs. male posturing. If anything, it's the only female character that gets the short shrift in Skylar (Driver), Will's girlfriend, a Harvard student from a rich British family who provides the emotional challenge to Will to shape up and take risks in life.
As conventional as Good Will Hunting is, Van Sant admirably retains his indie cred by using staunchly independent singer-songwriter Elliot Smith to provide the musical voice of the film. Though the score is credited to Danny Elfman, it's the haunting melancholy acoustic songs from Smith that set the tone of the film, recalling Mike Nichols' use of Simon and Garfunkel in the seminal coming-of-age film of the 1960s, The Graduate. With adequate time to reflect, Good Will Hunting and The Graduate match surprisingly well.
Good Will Hunting is available on Blu-ray from Alliance Films in Canada.