Good Will Hunting – 1997
This was an incredible movie. It had some really powerful performances, some really complex and realistic characters, a smart script with some great dialogue, and a wonderfully inspirational message. The cast was perfect. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were virtual unknowns in Hollywood until this movie made it big and suddenly they were both established household names. Because not only did they star in the movie, they were behind the writing of the script. Pretty darn impressive for the young friends.
Apparently, Damon originally started writing the script as a final project for a playwriting class he was taking at Harvard University. He asked his friend Affleck to help, and the rest is history. And just as an interesting note, the script was originally a thriller about a super-intelligent thug on the streets of South Boston who is targeted for recruitment by the FBI. Thank Goodness Rob Reiner got ahold of a copy of the script and convinced him to rework it as a drama.
And man, the drama sure worked. There were deep moments that were very character driven and even though much of it had a high-brow feel, it was all very accessible and engrossing. But I think this had just as much to do with the brilliant cast as it did with the fascinating script. The main character would have been no better than average if Matt Damon had not done such a great job. The character of Sean Maguire, masterfully played by Robin Williams, would not have been as powerful with any other actor.
Will Hunting is a poor orphan with a history of extreme physical and emotional abuse. He is a troubled young man who has criminal tendencies. But he also happens to have a photographic memory and genius level intelligence. To use an example from the script, he saw high-level and theoretical mathematics as Mozart or Beethoven saw music. Concepts that the world’s greatest mathematicians spent years proving came as easy as breathing to him. And yet, because of his tragic background, he had no concept of his own worth, believing that he would be nothing more than a common blue-collar laborer all his life.
In order to keep him out of prison, MIT professor Gerald Lambeau, played by Stellan Skarsgard, makes a deal with the judge. Will must work with him on mathematics, and see a therapist on a regular basis. Will agrees to do the math, but makes a mockery of his therapy sessions. Finally Sean Maguire is brought in. Sean grew up in the same area as Will, and thus has a rapport with him. And it is that relationship that is built between Will and Sean that provides the film with most of its drama. The two challenge each other emotionally and intellectually, each seeming to be a match for the other. He is the only psychiatrist to which Will responds.
We also follow Will with his relationship with the beautiful Skylar, played by Minnie Driver. They meet in a preppy Harvard bar and begin dating. The two fall deeply in love. Their relations vaguely parallels the relationship Sean had with his wife who had died of cancer. Driver did a good job and played her part perfectly. The emotional scene in which Will leaves her is absolutely heartbreaking to watch.
I also have to make mention of the trio of Will’s Southie friends, Chuckie, Morgan, and Billy, played by Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, and Cole Hauser. They, along with Will, are best friends who are loyal to a man. When Will gets into a brawl, his three friends fight along-side him without questioning the consequences. But they, especially Will’s closest friend, Chuckie, are all quite aware that Will is far above them in terms of intelligence. The point is made quite clear when Chuckie admonishes Will for wasting the rare gift of his intellect on a life that is beneath him, saying that it is an insult to someone like himself who will never have a chance at what Will is throwing away.
But of all the performances in the movie, Robin Williams stood out as phenomenal. Time and again, Williams has proved that he is a real powerhouse, turning in one wonderful dramatic performance after another. He was incredible. His sense of timing, his extreme gravitas, and his total immersion into the emotion of a scene makes him gripping and undeniably fantastic.
The movie was nearly perfect, but I do have to mention one little shortcoming. I have to admit to being disappointed in the big cathartic scene which ended in tears and hugs, the scene in which Sean gets Will to confront the inner demons which are holding him back from his own greatness. It was too contrived and too unbelievable. Sure, it was powerfully dramatic, but it was ultimately unrealistic. Years of abuse and self-worth issues are not instantly cured after an out-of-nowhere cry-fest, based on the gently repeated phrase, “It’s not your fault.” Did I cry when Will broke down into sobbing? Yes. Is that really how true psychological healing works? I’m guessing, probably not.