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Review: Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Directed by: Gus Van Sant

Premise: A twenty-something (Matt Damon) working as a janitor at M.I.T. is discovered to be a mathematical genius. After a run-in with the law, he is assigned to work with a therapist (Robin Williams) and romances a medical student (Minnie Driver).

What Works: Good Will Hunting is one of those films that is fun to revisit in part because of the careers that it launched. This was among the first starring roles for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who wrote the script as well as acted in the film, and the supporting cast includes Casey Affleck and Minnie Driver alongside established performers like Stellan Skarsgard and Robin Williams. The cast is one of the greatest strengths of this movie. The title character of Good Will Hunting is played by Damon and he is a streetwise young man who has tremendous mathematical capacity but he is haunted by the trauma of childhood abuse. The strength of Damon’s performance is how honest and subtle he is. Damon’s character is both charming and standoffish but that’s a defense mechanism against his anxiety; Damon plays this perfectly with internal anguish seething beneath his charm. The other key performance of Good Will Hunting is Robin Williams as the therapist who takes on the job of cutting through Will’s defenses and guiding the young man through reconciliation with his demons. Good Will Hunting is the highpoint of Williams’ dramatic performances and the doctor is as complex a character as his patient. The cast also includes Stellan Skarsgard as an accomplished mathematician who takes Will Hunting under his wing. In a lesser movie he would be a mustache twirling villain. Instead, Skarsgard’s character possesses his own complexity; there are several telling moments in which this man’s envy of Will’s talents comes bubbling to the surface and reveals his own inadequacies. Minnie Driver plays the girlfriend and although she is limited to the function of woman-as-redeemer, Driver’s character has a life of her own and she has a very likeable rapport with Damon. Much of the film’s stellar acting is tied to its equally terrific script. The subject matter of this film could easily lead toward melodramatic histrionics but the movie never falls into that. It delicately handles the darkness and the grief, offsetting it with unexpected humor, and the film boasts many beautifully written dialogue sequences. Another of the outstanding qualities of Good Will Hunting is the film’s sense of place. The movie captures the flavor of Boston and the filmmakers do an especially good job of contrasting the divide between the high society of prestigious academia and the grit of the Boston streets. That cross cutting reinforces Will Hunting’s internal struggle and integrates the central conflict of the story into the mechanics of the moviemaking.

What Doesn’t: The one unrealistic aspect of Good Will Hunting is the extent to which the therapist reveals his personal life to his patient, especially regarding his grief over his deceased wife. This is an example of dramatic necessity overriding realism. The therapy subplot requires Damon and Williams’ characters to build rapport and that’s accomplished by the exchange of personal information. These moments also give Williams’ character a background and make him sympathetic as well as support the themes of empathy that run through the movie. Good Will Hunting is shot through with authenticity in its characters and setting and this mostly disguises the extent to which the film adheres to storytelling conventions. The mentorship story and especially the romantic subplot remain within the margins of these kinds of stories. That’s most obvious when the film reaches its crisis point. Will’s meltdowns with his girlfriend and mentors are a bit forced and the one point in which the film feels artificial.

DVD extras: Featurettes.

Bottom Line: Good Will Hunting is a great movie whose impact has not diminished in the twenty years since its release. The film has tremendous performances and a story that is packed with pathos.

Episode: #645 (April 30, 2017)