Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver, Ben Affleck
I love Good Will Hunting. I know that its diamond in the rough type story isn’t exactly groundbreaking and that there’s always been some controversy regarding how much Matt Damon and Ben Affleck actually did versus how much they were credited with for the sake of crafting a great off-screen story, but I still love it. A friend and I even invented a drinking game for it: drink every time Affleck shows up in a different track suit. You might not make it to the end of the film that way.
Will Hunting (Damon) is a genius, a man whose uncommon intelligence is hindered only by his circumstances. An orphan who has spent most of his life being shuffled between foster homes and in and out of state custody, he’s the kind of person society tends to just give up on. By day he hangs out with his friends Chuckie (Affleck), Billy (Cole Hauser), and Morgan (Casey Affleck), getting into various forms of trouble, and by night he works as a janitor at MIT. Taking advantage of the seemingly empty building that he’s cleaning, he takes a crack at the problem written on the board of math professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard). Lambeau, shocked by the fact that the janitor found the solution that none of his students could decipher, takes Will on as a project, determined to mentor him to bigger and better things.
Lambeau soon enlists the help of Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a psychiatrist with whom he was once friends, and Sean is slowly able to break through Will’s defences in order to give him actual help for his issues. In the process, Will also helps Sean deal with the death of his wife and break the stasis of his mourning. Meanwhile, Will also finds himself navigating a relationship with Skylar (Minnie Driver), whom he likes but who also makes him very self-conscious about his rough upbringing and his current economic situation. Between them, Sean, Skylar and Will's posse of friends will help him break free of the trappings that Will is afraid to challenge.
Embraced when it was first released, Good Will Hunting experienced an inevitable backlash later on (Premiere Magazine once named it as one of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of All Time), but seems to have regained its original good standing in recent years. It is, in fact, a very strong effort on all sides, particularly in terms of writing. There are three key scenes that make up the heart and soul of this story: Will's park bench conversation with Sean, in which Sean exposes and effectively dismantles Will's greatest defence mechanism (the vast knowledge he tries to pass off as experience/wisdom) and dares him to get real; the scene in which Lambeau falls to his knees, acknowledging that while he can recognize Will's genius, he himself can never attain it; and the scene between Will and Chuckie during which Chuckie lambasts Will for wasting his abilities by not taking a chance at getting more. Williams won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his performance, but I've always thought that Affleck's was the strongest of the supporting performances and his speech during this last scene (my favourite of the whole movie) demonstrates why, capturing both Chuckie's jealousy and admiration of his friend, his dissatisfaction with his own lot in life and the pride he would feel to see someone from the neighborhood succeed. The speech is a bit cliche, but Affleck sells it and Damon sells Will's reaction to it. The two play off each other so well and so easily that it's hard to believe they haven't worked together onscreen since Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Seriously, someone team them up again!
Good Will Hunting is an interesting film to revisit 13 years after the fact. You see Damon rendering a confident, charismatic performance, still fresh but so close to stardom that you can already see it in him; Affleck in a loose, relaxed performance that would seem impossible just a few years later when he was mired in the dual disasters of Pearl Harbor and Bennifer 1.0; Williams in a relatively sedate, dialed back performance; and Van Sant crossing over to the mainstream for that brief period before returning to the offbeat indies that are his bread and butter. The evolutions of these careers since this film have been interesting, to say the least, but the film is much more than a snapshot of people coming together to capture lightning in a bottle. Good Will Hunting remains an excellent film, entertaining, energetic and ultimately moving.