Words by Matt Poe
“Good Will Hunting” (1997)
A brilliant but troubled young man must decide what to make of his life. With the help of a therapist, his best friend and a girl, he just may be able to pull it off.
Category: Drama, Independent
Rated R for strong language, including sex-related dialogue
Starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver and Robin Williams
Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Directed by Gus Van Sant
Welcome back to another rousing edition of Poe’s Picks. Our latest film for the blog is also the latest installment of Poe’s Favorites. For anyone still new to this, those are the movies I utmost recommend you see as soon as you can. A Poe’s Favorite indicates you must quit studying for that exam, forget that stupid assignment, drop anything you’re doing at the time and watch this movie. Trust me, it’s for your own sake and I have your best intentions in mind. So, as 50 Cent once said, ‘Let’s get it poppin.’
“Good Will Hunting” is a movie I presume almost everyone has heard of and many of you have seen. It’s become an iconic film of the last 20 years for many reasons. It’s a movie I have seen several times but, like all great films, I felt the urge to revisit it for some reason. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t seen it for a couple of years, or maybe it’s because of the lessons involved in the film. More on that later.
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a janitor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most acclaimed technology schools in the world. He’s a poor, orphaned kid who works the night shift scrubbing the floors and emptying trash cans until he can leave work to have a few beers with Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck) and the rest of his buddies. But in his spare time, which he has a lot of, Hunting reads books in a matter of hours and can dissect virtually any mathematics problem out there. He is, by all accounts, a genius.
Meanwhile, Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) is a math professor at MIT. He one day puts up several nearly impossible theorems on the hallway chalkboard for his pupils to decipher (It made my head hurt just to look at them.) The theorem is eventually solved, but no student claims to have done it. Through chance, Lambeau finds out Hunting was the one to finish it, and sees a diamond in the rough who can be molded into a brilliant mathematician. But it’s not that simple. Hunting’s constant run-ins with the law have him facing prison time. Lambeau is able to cut a deal with the judge to allow Hunting to work with him as long as he sees a psychiatrist. He winds up in the hands of Sean Maguire (Robin Williams, RIP) who was Gerald’s college roommate and now a psychiatrist, and the group begins to try peeling back the layers of who Hunting is.
I need not explain more because, hell, I’ve already said enough. “Good Will Hunting” has been parodied many times in television and movies, and you are now familiar with its synopsis. While the movie’s plot can be a little predictable, it’s not the plot we care about so much as the people involved. I chose the word “people” instead of “characters” because that’s exactly what they are in this film. Most movies label their characters for the audience to easily follow along: good guy, bad guy, damsel in distress, etc. But not here.
Lambeau is someone who sees the genius behind Hunting and wants to mold him into the scholar that he once was. But he’s so busy pushing the professional side of Hunting, he never understands who he is as a person and what he has been through. I mentioned Minnie Driver earlier in the introduction who plays Skylar, a student at Harvard who begins to fall for Hunting after a chance encounter. Her character could have been written as just the bimbo inserted into the film for a romantic angle. But instead, she gets a valuable backstory and we understand her motives and what she sees in Hunting. And while it’s Damon who’s front and center as Hunting, Affleck’s Sullivan is a vital role that gets better every time I see this movie.
And Williams. Man, did he leave us too soon. He’s the driving force in this movie. His role is pitch perfect, poetic and, instead of being the psychiatrist capable of solving everything, he too has his own issues to solve. (See the trend?) There’s a scene with him and Damon on a park bench where Williams goes into this monologue about life and love to try to help Hunting understand why no one understands him. It’s one of the best scenes in movie history. Period. Williams won the Oscar for best supporting actor for this role and deservedly so. He was great in so many things, both comedic and serious, but this is his epitaph role. This is the one.
I think the reason why this is such a great movie (It is, no arguments. I’m right!) is that it is about choice, chance, opportunity and deciding what to do with the time given to us. We often go through life on autopilot and fail to realize the great potential in front of us or inside of us for a variety of reasons. Hunting knows he can do anything and his friends do as well. So what’s holding him back? I don’t think we ask ourselves that often enough. It’s the ability to be honest with one’s self about what you want and then be brave enough to go out and capture it. It may be a job, fitness goal, change of scenery or even a girl’s phone number. Williams so elegantly put it: “You can do anything you want. You are bound by nothing.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
Until next time.
In Good Films We Trust,
Matt “Roger Ebert wishes he was half the film critic I am” Poe