Good Will Hunting
“In 1905 there were hundreds of professors renowned for their study of the universe. But it was a 26 year-old Swiss patent clerk, doing physics in his spare time, who changed the world. Can you imagine if Einstein would have given that up just to get drunk with his buddies in Vienna every night? We all would have lost something.” This comes from Professor Gerald Lambeau, and he means it. While Good Will Hunting (1997) is, among other things, about two former classmates vying for a breakthrough with a whiz kid half their age, it does not contain a villain. There are a lot of messy relationships on display, but everyone involved is acting on behalf of what they believe to be the best for Will Hunting. This film is an absolutely brilliant display of screenwriting; it deserves careful study in the way that it blends showy monologues and self-conscious one-liners with the natural feel of true everyday speech and behavior. The dialogue is wonderful, but it never takes us out of the film, because we believe these characters would actually speak this way. The script, written by the then up-and-coming talents of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, is a genuinely inspirational exploration of genius hidden in blue-collar Boston. I perhaps cannot think of any film that does so much without seeming to do much at all. It never panders and never asks for your tears. But you’ll probably be inclined to surrender them anyway.
This is without a doubt one of my all-time favorite films, and after repeated viewings it never seems to fade or age. For one thing, Will Hunting is a fascinating character: passed from foster home to foster home, beaten by supposed caretakers, he gets in fights and gets thrown in jail, works as a janitor, and every morning his best friend comes to pick him up so they can just hang out and drink and waste time. He has intimacy issues and a fear of abandonment; he would rather not date than embark on the path leading to inevitable demise. He offers bold-faced lies to a woman he’s seeing rather than reveal anything resembling vulnerability. But, he can do advanced mathematics as easily (or more so) as most of us could do long division. He solves problems in minutes that experts struggle with for days or more. Prof. Lambeau discovers him and wonders why he is not using his gift to contribute to the world. Why is he wasting what others would give anything to have? In Lambeau’s eyes, he owes it to society and to himself. Sean Maguire, played with astonishing ease and depth by Robin Williams, seeks to answer some of these questions by gently peeling away the layers surrounding Will’s guarded heart. But, the process is difficult, because Will can always fall back on what is comfortable and what is safe and what he has been doing for twenty years. It is easier to eschew human connection and vulnerability and simply continue getting picked up every morning by Chuckie to go drink some more beer.
There are so many deftly constructed relationships in this film. There are the long-standing rivalry between Sean and Lambeau, the initial chess match and eventual catharsis between Sean and Will, the complex push and pull for intimacy between Will and Skylar, the camaraderie with friends that never push for more than what is expected, and the surprisingly honest summation between Will and Chuckie. Everyone is fighting for Will, but Will doesn’t seem to want anything. And this film asks what it will take for Will to consider doing something with his talent, to consider loving and accepting love from another human being, to confront his past, and to perhaps be somewhere else when Chuckie comes to pick him up. All of this is done with more grace and confidence than you might expect from what could easily be a clichéd, pseudo-inspirational made-for-TV movie plot. You can take away a message, but I’m not sure it’s really offering one. Like all great character studies, it simply explores the character’s path without asking you to apply your own life to the proceedings, though it’s not overly difficult to do so.
After watching the film, one could talk about the idea of wasted talent. One could say that Will does owe it to the world to use his gift, just as we all owe it to ourselves and others to use what we have. One could talk about the importance of human connection, love, intimacy, vulnerability, and relationships that push us to become better people. All of this is true and makes for valid motivations to take away from the film. But, every time I watch it, the thing that I go back to is the group of friends surrounding Will. Aside from Chuckie, who actually tells it like it is toward the end (“In twenty years if you’re still living here I’ll kill you”), Will’s friends are the absolute antithesis of true friendship. Sure, they’re fun and they have a good time together, but none of them challenge him. They would be content if he continued to work blue-collar jobs and get in fights and go to jail and drink with them for the rest of his life. They would be content if he never used his mathematical genius except to stand up to showoffs in bars. These are the “safe” friends, the friends that care about you so long as you maintain the status quo. But if you’re doing something wrong or wasting your life or settling for mediocrity, they don’t care if you don’t. And even if you do, they probably still don’t. They will never push you out of your comfort zone. They will never ask you to do something you don’t want to do. They will never call you out or tell you what you don’t want to hear. They are a haven for our desire for secrecy, anonymity, and ease: a blanket we should’ve outgrown a long time ago. Will’s friends are not terrible people, but he is incapable of maturing or reaching closer to his potential every day that he spends in the same cycle with them. I think that the idea of safe friends rings true for most people. It may not be the most compelling thing in the film, but it certainly resonates with me. Vulnerability and discomfort are the price we pay for true friendship. Sometimes it hurts, but it is the only way for human connection to spur individual growth. Will’s friends are fun, but it’s Sean, and in another way Skylar, who demonstrate true love because they seek a kind of spiritual maturation for Will, regardless of whether or not he seeks it himself. The price may seem high at times, but the alternative is far more costly.