Good Will Hunting (1997): Gus Van Sant’s Oscar Winning Film, Starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams

A towering performance by Matt Damon in the lead, and a superlative ensemble headed by a terrific Robin Williams, elevate Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant’s emotionally involving psychological drama, way above the mainstream therapeutic sensibility of its story.

Centering on a brilliant working-class youngster who’s forced to come to terms with his creative genius and true feelings, this beautifully realized tale is always engaging and often quite touching. With the right marketing, Miramax could score big with an extremely enjoyable picture whose old-fashioned virtues should play well in big cities as well as Middle America shopping malls.

Fans of Van Sant’s earlier, offbeat films, may be disappointed by the more conventional attributes of Good Will Hunting, a “problem” drama dealing with the complex relationship between a rough, extraordinarily gifted kid and his equally problematic and bruised therapist.

Thematically, the film recalls Robert Redford’s Ordinary People and especially Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate, which also revolved around a child-genius of the working class, but young viewers may embrace the film in the same way that Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” was, as a zeitgeist picture that touches a chord with younger demographics, especially that it’s written from the inside (unlike “The Graduate”) by twentysomething members.

Nonetheless, it’s a testament to Van Sant’s idiosyncratic talent that he endows the narrative, particularly its first chapters, with the nihilistic humor and deceptively casual and nonchalant style that have marked his best work, Drugstore Cowboy (which was also straightforward) and the more eccentric My Own Private Idaho.

Co-written by thesps Damon and Ben Affleck, who had known each other since childhood in Boston, protagonist is Will Hunting (Damon), a 20-year-old lad who works as a janitor at MIT, and spends most of his time with his coarse friends at the neighborhood bar. Blessed with a grace of genius, Will, who has never attended college, can summon obscure historical references based on his exceptional photographic memory. He can also solve difficult mathematical problems with the kind of ease and facility that make MIT’s richer and more educated students envious of him.

When big-shot professor Lambeau (Breaking the Waves’ Stellan Skarsgard) presents a math challenge to his students, with a fine reward to match, Will anonymously solves the formula on a blackboard placed in the school’s corridor. Lambeau begins a search for the mysterious student and upon finding Will takes him under his wings. It’s the only way for Will to get parole after a number of run-ins with the law and local courthouse. Lambeau makes two conditions, that Will meet with him once a week for a math session and that he begin therapy.

A succession of psychologists try to reach Will, using various techniques (including hypnosis), but to no avail, he won’t cooperate. Finally, Lambeau summons his old, alienated classmate, Sean McGuire (Williams), a community college instructor and therapist–and the real drama begins. In essence, script is structured as a battle of wills, with four different individuals vying for Will’s soul: a mathematician, a therapist, an affluent British student named Skylar (Mini Driver), who has a crush on him, and his buddy, Chuckie (Ben Affleck). The four parties, each representing a distinct point of view, try to help Will find his true self–at a price.

Most of the narrative consists of intense one-to-one sessions between Will and Sean, two equally stubborn, equally bruised men. True to form, psychological revelations and emotional disclosures are made about their respective pasts. An orphan who was later abused by his surrogate father, Will has carried a chip on his shoulder since boyhood. A widower, still in love with his wife, who had painfully died of cancer, Sean is also a tough Irishman and product of an abusive parent. These kind of parallels are, in fact, the major weakness of the script, which progressively gets schematic. By film’s end, every personal problem and turbulent social interaction is neatly tidied and resolved.

Helmer Van Sant must have realized that the tale is quite predictable, for he imbues the film with his customary devious style, which is grainy and arty at the same time, and with leisurely pacing that offers emotional payoffs. Van Sant is one of the few directors who truly understands–and doesn’t condescend to–working class and blue-collar America, as is evident in each of his films. Here he gets far and deep into his half a dozen characters, which results in a beautifully textured movie about outcasts (Van Sant’s favorite topic) seldom seen in mainstream Hollywood fare. Rich in tone, Good Will Hunting is funny, nonchalant, moving and angry, effortlessly alternating its various moods, often within the same scene.

Endowed with the good looks of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio (whom he physically resembles) and with impressive discipline and technical skills to match, Damon gives a charismatic performance in a demanding role that’s bound to catapult him to major stardom. Perfectly cast, he makes the aching, step-by-step transformation of his psyche and soul both realistic and credible. Comparisons will be made between Williams’ Oscar-nominated role in Awakenings (in which he played a shy doctor) and his work here, which is quieter, subtler and far more satisfying. Rest of the cast is uniformly good, with standout work from Driver as the girl who fatefully changes Will’s life.

After a couple of disappointing assignments (Grace of My Heart, Gummo), cult French lenser Escoffier finally gets to show his brilliant lyrical style in an American project, opting for natural light when possible and fully using South Boston as an integral character in the yarn. Longtime Van Sant collaborators Stewart and Pasztor also make significant contributions with their detailed production design and nuanced costumes which effectively illustrate the co-existence of disparate social classes in America.

Credits

A Miramax release of a Lawrence Bender production.
Produced by Lawrence Bender.
Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jonathan Gordon, Su Armstrong.
Co-executive producers, Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier.
Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Screenplay, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, based on Damon’s story.
Camera: Jean Yves Escoffier; editor, Pietro Scalia; music, Danny Elfman; music supervisor, Jeffrey Kimball; production design, Melissa Stewart; costume design, Beatrix Aruna Pasztor; casting, Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kerry Barden.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 126 Minutes.

Cast
Will Hunting…….Matt Damon
Sean McGuire…Robin Williams
Chuckie………..Ben Affleck
Skylar………..Minnie Drive
Lambeau…..Stellan Skarsgard
Morgan……….Casey Affleck
Billy………….Cole Hauser