FILM RATING: 5 stars
Every now and then, a movie comes along that absolutely blows your world apart. It gives you a perspective on life that you never had before. It weasels its way into your psyche, unbeknownst to you, and takes root…becoming a major part of your inner workings. It’s like Inception! When I first saw Good Will Hunting (1997) in 1998 when it came out, I had no idea that 13 years later this little indie film written by two wet-behind-the-ear kids from “Bahh-ston” would be one of my favorite films of all time. I mean…these two guys, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, are my contemporaries and I was 24 when this movie touched my heart and soul. That’s pretty incredible writing from two young guys in their 20s, which won them both Oscars for Best Original Screenplay. Good Will Hunting is firmly planted in my Top 25 films of all time. And I doubt it will ever leave. Especially because the film is as fresh and critical today as it ever was. Repeatedly, over and over, this movie gets to me like so few do.
It’s a perfect film (5 out of 5 stars) about the inherent flaws and failures that go hand-in-hand with life’s greatest successes and achievements. The human condition, especially the condition of being a man, is flopped onto the operating table in Good Will Hunting and surgically dissected into all the psychological bits and quirks that somehow magically come together to create each of our lives. The emotional and intellectual depth present in the script, the acting, the dialogue, and all the details of this film, belies its book cover. If by some odd chance you haven’t yet gone on this journey with Will Hunting, then by all means, get into this film now and for many years to come.
I watched Good Will Hunting for the umpteenth time tonight, but for the first time in over a year and the first time in HD. Having seen the film in the theater, on VHS, on DVD, and on TV, I know it like the back of my hand. And yet in HD, there were details that were brought to my attention like never before. Textures in the actors faces, colors that were brighter than they’ve ever been, locations that popped out, and dialog that reminds us all why we enjoyed The Social Network (2010) so much this past year. Director Gus Van Sant has never been better in his cinematic craftsmanship, then with his work on Good Will Hunting. He brings his artistic flare and unique storytelling techniques to a more mainstream presentation than his typical indie fare. It’s films like this that make someone’s career, or bring it back to life. And it did that for all the major players here. It brought the incredible filmmaking talents of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to the attention of Hollywood, both for acting and writing. It brought Gus Van Sant into the light of mainstream Hollywood directing. It really introduced us to Stellan Skarsgård, Minnie Driver, Casey Affleck, and Cole Hauser, all of whom are well known actors now, who got there talents showcased in this film. And it finally gave Robin Williams his much deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, after being nominated for his incredible work in Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Dead Poets Society (1989).
It’s hard for me to write about Good Will Hunting because its the kind of complex, intelligent, yet very emotional story that is really best told through film, not writing. I love reading good prose like anyone, but film has a way of bringing that prose to life through its visuals, emotions, and music that our brains just don’t create for us in our imaginations quite so viscerally. That being said, I’ll do the best I can here! Matt Damon stars as Will Hunting, a mathematical genius in the form of a young man who was an abused orphan. Hunting has struggled all of his life, moving from foster home to foster home, job to job, and brawl to brawl. But living in South Boston, he’s made some extremely close friends…brothers really…played ironically and fortuitously by real life brothers Ben & Casey Affleck and Cole Hauser. It absolutely helps sell the realism of the relationship between these actors that 3 out of 4 of them grew up in Boston together in real life.
After Will gets into another fight to defend his tough ‘Southie” reputation, he gets arrested and put in jail. And this time he can’t intellectualize his way out of it. But before being arrested, he catches the attention of a math professor at Harvard, played brilliantly by Stellan Skarsgård. Professor Gerald Lambeau challenges his students to solve a complex math problem that he puts up on a chalkboard. Working as a Janitor at Harvard, Will puts the solution to the math problem on the chalkboard one night while cleaning, and eventually gets discovered by Lambeau, who convinces the Judge to let Will out of jail under his guidance and care. But in return, Will has to attend weekly therapy sessions to address his issues with violence and crime. After going through a string of different types of therapists, Lambeau takes Will to his old college roommate Sean Maguire who happens to be a psychologist and community college instructor from Southie, just like Will. Robin Williams plays Maguire with absolute brilliance, creating a character that challenges, helps and befriends Will. The rest of the movie follows this journey through Will’s therapy sessions, his new love relationship with Minnie Driver’s “Skylar”, his weekly “hang outs” with his best friends, and his work with Professor Lambeau solving complex math problems. The journey is really all about Will completing his past and starting to discover who he is and what gifts he has.
I think the main reason Good Will Hunting has such a strong place in my heart as a film is because of the story of Will. While totally different than my own, it still has the same fundamentals of growing up, finding yourself, getting complete with your childhood and your past, falling in love, and searching for your purpose in life that we all experience….and continue to experience over and over again throughout life. While I’m no math genius, never been to Boston, or been an orphan, I still strongly relate to the emotional and psychological struggles that Will has. Damon and Affleck clearly wrote this story pulling from their own lives to some degree, their own journeys into male adulthood, and brought a realism to the details of the story that makes this relatable to just about anyone. The jokes and stories in Good Will Hunting are absolutely hilarious and still give me a great laugh now, dozens of times later. And the verbal banter between Skarsgård and Williams, Williams and Damon, Damon and Driver, and amongst the 4 friends/brothers, is simply some of the best dialog ever written and acted. I laugh, I cry, and I escape in to the world of Will Hunting every single time I watch this movie.
I’ve said before that part of how I judge a movie to be a 4 or 5 star film is because of it’s longevity and appeal over time. I rarely give a movie that I see for the first time a 4 or 5 star rating. Usually they get 3 or 3.5 stars initially, and then have to earn there way up the ladder through repeated viewings over years. I know that Good Will Hunting was probably a 3.5 or 4 star film to me when I first saw it, not that I was rating films back then like I do now. But over the years, I’ve connected with Good Will Hunting time and time again. It’s one of those movies that I watch once a year, not so much as “entertainment” but as a heartfelt psychological escape that puts me “in touch with the universe” as I like to call it. It reconnects me, when I need it to, to the universal energy and “truths” that we are all continually seeking comfort in. It reminds me that I’m here to live the life I’ve been given, and not someone else’s. Will feels this obligation to his friends to stick around Southie, to work in some blue collar job like the rest of them, to raise a family there and go to ball games with his friends and their eventual families. But Will has talents and genius that don’t really fit into that world. And he’s pulled in these two opposite directions, one with his head and one with his heart. Who in their life hasn’t felt that same struggle at some point? Or goes through it again? And again? I know that I have…and that I continue to periodically. Good Will Hunting reminds me to connect my head and my heart and create a path that wins for both.
As I was watching all of the sizzling scenes between Skarsgard and Williams tonight, it dawned on me more clearly than ever how these two characters represent the two opposing, yet complimentary aspects of our human nature: our mind and our heart. Skarsgard, as the Math Professor, represents our intellect, our mind, our voice that’s always rattling things off to us in our head. That logical and responsible part of ourselves. Williams, as the Psychologist, represents our heart, our soul, our gut instincts, our feelings. That lover and fighter within us. These two yin-and-yang characters play out so well when separated into these distinct characters, giving us an external view into our own internal battles. I’ve always known this on a subconscious level, but tonight I became aware of it consciously. Amazing how this film keeps giving me little kernels of insight into myself and into the universe each time I watch it and internalize it.
In terms of filmmaking, Good Will Hunting has excellent production design, Oscar level acting by nearly the entire cast, brilliant writing, subtle but incredible cinematography, and masterful directing. It just doesn’t get much better than this! The music and score for Good Will Hunting, while subtle like the photography, are perfectly fitted for the mood, emotion, and story of this film. Music Composer Danny Elfman did his best work here, still to this day. What strikes me most about Director of Photography Jean-Yves Escoffier’s work here is the stillness he brings to the shots. It’s like he’s waiting with his camera for something to happen. And it does! He lets the actors, the sets, and the locations do the work, instead of the handheld photography doing the work. I feel like so many current films, like Black Swan (2010) for example, get caught up in handheld photography that makes me feel like we’ve all got ADD and can’t just sit and watch the story unfold, but that we need the camera to “jiggle” to remind us somehow that we are like voyeurs peeking into the lives of these characters. I don’t need that on every character-driven movie! There’s my little rant on the current state of handheld cinematography being so dominant in current films. But my point is that Good Will Hunting, which pre-dates the current popularity of handheld photography, has a more subtle yet powerful way of presenting its visuals to us through the richness of the design of the sets, the locations, the costumes and makeup, and the actors themselves.
I look forward to the eventual release of this cinematic masterpiece on Blu-ray, which I would bet comes to fruition this year or next. It will certainly be a film that I upgrade my current DVD collection to include in HD. And hopefully Damon and Affleck will re-team someday to bring us another film of this caliber. As far as I’m concerned, they both have yet to top their performances in Good Will Hunting. But they’ve come really close with their recent work. Damon with the Bourne Trilogy, and Affleck with The Town (2010).
NOTE: These still images from the Collector’s Edition DVD of Good Will Hunting really don’t do it justice in terms of the film’s incredible cinematography. I’m sure a Hi-Def Blu-ray will correct that down the road.