“I know you’d rather see me gone
Than to see me the way that I am.”
—“Miss Misery,” Elliott Smith
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have been A-listers for decades, and they’ve done practically everything Hollywood could ask them to do. Private Ryan and Tom Ripley and Loki and Linus Caldwell and Jason Bourne and LaBoeuf and Colin Sullivan and Mark Watney and Carroll Shelby. O’Bannion and Holden McNeil and Bartleby and Shannon and Sheriff Bryce Hammond and Ned Alleyn and Rafe McCawley and Jack Ryan and Larry Gigli and Doug MacRay and Nick Dunne and Christian Wolff and Redfly and Bruce Wayne. Damon and Affleck boast careers that have sprawled across all genres, that have made them millions and garnered them constant media coverage, that have secured their status as top-tier producers and directors, and that can all be traced back to one film: 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.”
Will and Chuckie. Two kids from Southie, Boston. “Good Will Hunting” isn’t an autobiographical story. Damon and Affleck both grew up fairly well off and involved in the arts. They weren’t, as far as we know, brawling with rival neighborhood gangs or crashing Harvard bars. But the childhood friends who became actors together were the magic that made “Good Will Hunting” work: their chemistry, their camaraderie, their bond. Their script was passed by director Kevin Smith to the now-convicted-and-imprisoned Harvey Weinstein. Beloved indie director Gus Van Sant came on to direct. Robin Williams, already tearing up the ‘90s with “Aladdin” and “The Birdcage,” joined the cast. Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith contributed six lovely, wistful songs to the soundtrack. The film was phenomenally successful, making more than $220 million on a budget of $10 million. At the 70th Academy Awards, with the nine nominations for “Good Will Hunting” up against the 11 for “Titanic,” Williams went home as the Best Supporting Actor and Damon and Affleck as authors of the Best Original Screenplay. The boyhood friends’ paths forward were set, and as each of their careers took off, they would intermittently appear onscreen together in the years to come.
What has perhaps gotten lost in the ensuing decades, though—possibly overshadowed by Damon’s flashier work with Paul Greengrass, Ridley Scott, and Steven Soderbergh, or by Affleck’s own career as an Oscar-winning director, or by the post-“Justice League” memefication of Affleck as a public figure—is that “Good Will Hunting” is actually really damn good. Right now, when the world around us feels particularly overwhelming and the pressures of our everyday routines seem outside of our control, the healing nature of “Good Will Hunting” is a balm. The film’s poignant exploration of living and loving is soothing at any time, but especially these times—when we yearn for comfort more than ever, and when “It’s not your fault” might be exactly what we need to hear. “Good Will Hunting” is lyrically directed, efficiently written, side-splittingly funny, quietly devastating. A portrait of disaffected twentysomethings shooting the sh*t, day in and day out, in Boston’s working-class neighborhoods. Of friendship turned into brotherhood, and of the assumption that all free time is time meant to be spent together. Of unrelenting loyalty, and its companion, crushing honesty. Of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and foamy beer and drive-through burgers, bought for each other and shared with one another. Of the loneliness of certain types of knowledge, and the mirrored loneliness of not possessing it. Of the walls we build up to protect ourselves, and of the people we trust enough to help us break them down.
“Everyone is uptight
So come on night
Everyone is gone
Home to oblivion.”
—“No Name #3,” Elliott Smith
“Good Will Hunting” begins through a kaleidoscope: repeated reflections of weighty, leather-bound books, open to random spots and tossed aside; equations and formulas, scrawled on all sorts of surfaces, their meanings indecipherable to most of us; stacks of paper, not quite high enough to topple over, but just high enough to be hazardous. Then the mirage is punctured, and contextualized, by Will Hunting’s (Damon) reality. All of those exemplars of learning seem out of place in a rundown house with mismatched chairs in a mostly empty living room; a broken TV, a broken microwave, and broken furniture on the front lawn; and a pulled-up fence leaning precariously against the front porch. And the neighborhood of Southie, Boston, although only a few miles away from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, feels like the other side of the world.
Will makes that journey every morning, and his routine rarely wavers. Best friend Chuckie (Affleck) parks his beat-up car outside Will’s house, walks to the door, and hands over a cup of coffee. Chuckie drives, Will’s spot is the passenger seat, and the other two members of their crew, mechanic Bill (Cole Hauser) and wayward Morgan (Affleck’s younger brother Casey), populate the back. They separate during the day (Chuckie to work construction, Will to the janitorial staff at MIT, Billy to his repair shop, Morgan to … wherever) and then reconvene every evening at their local dive bar. Their hang-out spots expand during the weekends: The dog-racing track. Little League games. Chuckie’s mother’s house, where they’re disgusted to realize that Morgan is masturbating in her bedroom upstairs. Batting cages, where Will and Chuckie engage in a heated back and forth over Chuckie crowding the plate. They hit on the same girls. They drink the same beer. Their stories mostly involve each other. “F**k you, you’re taking off. It’s like, 10 o’clock?” a shocked Chuckie says when Will leaves early one night. The foursome is together more than they’re apart.
The backstory of their friendship comes out in bits and pieces, through allusions rather than exposition. We learn that Chuckie and Will grew up together when the foursome starts a fight with the bully who used to terrorize Will, and we understand the fierceness of Chuckie’s loyalty when he threatens Morgan to make sure he joins the brawl: “F**king go, Morgan. If you’re not out there in two f**king seconds, when they’re done, you’re next.” Van Sant slows down the ensuing melee, setting it to the soft rock hit “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. The fists flying forward, the bodies being pushed around, Morgan’s shock when he connects with a member of the enemy gang, the splatters of blood on Will’s face as he pummels his tormenter, and his grin as they spurt onto him. The friends have done this before, and they’ll do this again. There’s an abstractness to the fight itself, but a certainty to the circumstances surrounding it. To the friends hanging out together. To wiling away their time as they can, every day growing a little bit older. To defending Will. To going wherever he goes, as much as they can follow.
“With the things you could do, you won’t but you might
The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see
The promises you’ll only make.”
—“Between the Bars,” Elliott Smith
Will’s position within the friend group is singular, and it’s not just because of his unrivaled closeness with Chuckie, or because he’s the only one who leaves Southie each day for his job, or because his rap sheet is longer than anyone else’s, dotted with various instances of “assault … grand theft auto … impersonating an officer, mayhem, theft, resisting,” reads an amazed Judge George Malone (Jimmy Flynn), when Will is arrested for hitting a cop. It’s because Will can recite legal precedent from the 18th century and the U.S. Constitution verbatim, because he can speed-read all those books tossed around his otherwise sparse home, and because, as Morgan puts it, “My boy’s wicked smart.”
What Affleck and Damon’s script lays out, methodically and increasingly satisfyingly, is just how “wicked smart” Will really is. In the hallowed halls of MIT, its cozy warm glow and stately brick a stark contrast to Southie’s dilapidation, Will solves an “advanced Fourier system” that to the rest of us just looks like fancy math. Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) is certain that one of his graduate students did the work—and when no one comes forward, a mystery is born. The logical next step, Lambeau figures, is another challenge, a problem that it took the prestigious Fields Medal winner and his colleagues two years to figure out. And just as easily, Will solves it, shocking Lambeau (“You can’t graffiti here” is his immediate reaction to what Will was doing on his chalkboard) and inspiring the professor to track down the young man and recruit him into further experimental mathematics work together.
Once Will is pulled into Lambeau’s academic world, “Good Will Hunting” emphasizes the untenable tension between this working-class young man, his intelligence and cleverness accrued through his photographic memory and genius-level intellect and voracious consumption of library books of all types, and the erudite professor, his tenured colleagues, and their expectations of Will’s obedience. Court ordered to work as a sort of apprentice to Lambeau instead of serving time, Will knows the strangeness of his presence here (he practically rolls his eyes when Lambeau, in celebration after they solve a particularly complex problem, ruffles Will’s hair) and downplays it to Chuckie et al. He’ll entertain Lambeau’s curiosity about the depths of his ability, but he won’t let him in, won’t tolerate Lambeau’s complaints about his lateness when he’s relying on public transport to make it to MIT, won’t take seriously Lambeau’s offers of a job with think tanks or engineering firms or the National Security Agency.
So many of these assertions of Will’s brainpower, and his accompanying rejections of the elitist, higher-class society Lambeau believes Will should want to join, have gained notoriety as the film’s most quotable scenes. In nearly all of these exchanges, Van Sant either shares with us Will’s perspective as he stares down unworthy challengers to himself or his friends or zooms in tightly on Will’s face as he speaks rapidly and authoritatively, making us the recipient of his missives. Will’s scolding of a first-year graduate student at a Harvard bar, when Will calls the guy out for using plagiarized theories to try and embarrass Chuckie, switches back and forth between Will and the “barney.” Van Sant steadily moves us closer and closer to Will as he delivers his de facto mission statement on how the Ivy League relies on exclusion to maintain their prestige, letting us into headspace and inviting us onto his side:
Will: “The sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One: don’t do that. And two: You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f----n’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”
Clark: “Yeah, but I will have a degree. And you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-through on our way to a skiing trip.”
Will: “Yeah, maybe. Yeah, but at least I won’t be unoriginal. By the way if you have a problem with that, I mean, we could just step outside and we could figure it out.”
Later that night, after Will gets the phone number of Skylar (Minnie Driver), the woman Clark was trying to impress, his “How ya like them apples?” allows him to further embarrass the Harvard student and assert his own worthiness and his place alongside Chuckie, Bill, and Morgan. Weeks after, when Will bails on a job interview set up by Lambeau, Chuckie—in an amusingly tiny suit and his hair slicked back, a purposefully mocking mimicry of the moneyed—goes in his stead, swindling a “retainer” out of the interviewers. And when Will decides to finally tolerate one of Lambeau’s meetings, it’s with the NSA, a scene in which Van Sant relies on a smash cut to provide impact to Will’s criticism of the government agency. Filmed in one uninterrupted take, Will’s tirade gives voice to a deep distrust and resentment of American institutions, fueled by Will’s sense of himself as a member of the left-behind working class. “Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot,” Will starts, before delivering an increasingly pointed answer about U.S. interference in the Middle East and North Africa, the overuse of military force, the volatility of oil prices, the corruption of private industry, and the complacency of the federal government.
“So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure f**k it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.”
“Situations get f**ked up and turned around sooner or later
And I could be another fool or an exception to the rule
They want you or they don’t
—“Say Yes,” Elliott Smith
The first person to call Will on any of this—to question how he wields his knowledge as a weapon, and hides behind the work of others rather than taking a chance on himself—is the court-mandated psychologist Will starts seeing in tandem with his meetings with Lambeau. After rejecting a slew of therapists from Lambeau’s world, mocking their work, and questioning their sexuality, Will acquiesces to meetings with Professor Sean Maguire (Williams), who teaches at a local community college, wears a well-loved Boston Red Sox bomber jacket, and was Lambeau’s freshman-year roommate at MIT.
Their initial meeting is defined by the same sort of smart-aleck standoffishness that Will has used, for years, to his advantage, but it’s Sean’s volatility—how he chokes Will for mocking Sean’s dead wife, and Sean’s accompanying grief—that intrigues the younger man. Van Sant and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier show us the damage inflicted by Will by mirroring the composition of a painting in Sean’s office, an image he created of a man navigating his tiny rowboat through a coming storm, with a glimpse inside Sean’s home. Dirty dishes stacked in a sink. A bottle of whisky on his dining room table, and a glass already half-drunk. Shot from below, a despondent Sean, with sounds of crashing waves and seagulls ringing in his ears, looks like he’s struggling mightily with something. Like he’s trying to keep from drowning.
At their next meeting, how Sean defends himself from Will’s attacks by unapologetically sharing his own life experiences, from Vietnam to his decades-long marriage, sets the rhythm of their sessions moving forward. “Your move, chief,” Sean says, and his return shot pushes their relationship past a “staring contest between two kids from the neighborhood.” There is a warmth to Sean Maguire that only Williams, tapping into the same mixture of gentleness and forlornness as his performance in “Dead Poets Society,” can provide, and he imbues these scenes with it. Sean shares stories about his life, about his wife, about how they fell in love. He talks about his father, the sacrifices his working-class family made so that he could go to MIT, his attempt to reconcile his Southie upbringing with the more privileged lives of his classmates, like Lambeau. He asks Will about Skylar, about Chuckie. But “What do you want to do?” is a question Will won’t answer, or perhaps can’t answer. Each 5 p.m. appointment has the broad strokes of two friends hanging out, and when Sean nudges against that—reminding Will that the point of therapy isn’t for them to only exchange friendly banter, but for Will to try and reach a deeper level of understanding about himself—Will explodes.
A similar dynamic builds between Will and Skylar, the Harvard undergraduate Will met at the bar—an affection deepened by time spent together, and undermined by Will’s difficulty with honesty. They go on dates and start sleeping together while he keeps her from Chuckie, Morgan, and Bill. “Is it me you’re hiding from them, or the other way around?” Skylar wonders, and when they finally meet at the group’s local bar, Will’s anxiety is obvious. These are his closest friends are the world, and his only family. Will they approve of her? Will she approve of them? Her “filthy” joke about a married couple celebrating their 50th anniversary with a blow job and a follow-up kiss lands, with Van Sant panning to each friend to document their delighted reaction, and Will’s relieved smile being the most prominent.
Yet Chuckie’s endorsement means little when Skylar, leaving for Stanford Medical School, asks Will to accompany her to California. Until that point, the lovers have danced around their class divide—Skylar, with her posh British accent and her inheritance; Will, with his one collared shirt and his work boots—with Skylar teasingly describing her boyfriend as “someone like you … someone who divides their time fairly evenly between batting cages and bars.” When the possibility of a real future together comes up, one that involves Will leaving Southie, he balks. When Skylar asks if he loves her, he refuses. “Don’t tell me about my world,” Will rages, and the reality is that he hasn’t been particularly honest—not about being an orphan, growing up in various foster homes, or suffering shocking abuse. But he has no answer for Skylar’s parrying “That’s my life, and I deal with it.” Will would rather be alone, and leave behind someone who truly love him, than be himself.
“I can make you satisfied in
Everything you do
All your secret wishes could right
Now be coming true.”
—“Angeles,” Elliott Smith
“Good Will Hunting” is interspersed with moments of gauzy sentimentality for the type of masculine loyalty that Will, Chuckie, Bill, and Morgan live by—for their “shenanigans, tomfoolery, ballyhoo,” as described by one of Will’s rejected therapists. With dawn just breaking, the men look out the window as Chuckie drives back from the Harvard bar to their industrialized, non-gentrified neighborhood. The camera pivots inside the car to take in each man’s profile, the texture of the film grain evident in the soft light. The men were aware of their otherness in Cambridge, but operated as a united front against it. A similar acknowledgment of the disparity between these universities and the cities surrounding them is demonstrated during Will’s train rides back and forth. He’s often alone, watching the landscape outside change, growing more developed toward MIT and the people he doesn’t to be around, and more barren back to Southie and the people he does.
Just as Sean stunned Will into silence, though, with his query about what Will envisions for himself, so does Chuckie. The brother in arms, the “retarded gorilla” who would take a baseball bat to anyone for Will, the consigliere who gets Will a job on a demolition crew after his work with Lambeau ends, puts aside the braggadocio bullshit to bare his deepest desire to Will. The result is a quiet reversal of the film’s entire perspective. Our sympathy is no longer devoted entirely to Will, to a young man who so desires a “normal” life, but also extends to Chuckie, the best friend who must finally speak his piece. Chuckie knows what “normalcy” can be, and he resents the patronizing way Will has coveted it.
Will: “Oh, come on! Why is it always this, I mean, I f**kin’ owe it to myself to do this? Why if I don’t want to?”
Chuckie: “Alright. No. No no. F**k you. You don’t owe it to yourself. You owe it to me. ’Cause tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be fifty and I’ll still be doing this shit. And that’s all right, that’s fine. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in. And that’s bullshit ’cause I’d do anything to f**kin’ have what you got. So would any of these f**kin’ guys. It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here in twenty years. Hanging around here is a f**kin’ waste of your time.”
Will: “You don’t know that.”
Chuckie: “I don’t?”
Will: “No. You don’t know that.”
Chuckie: “Oh, I don’t know that. Let me tell you what I do know. Every day I come by to pick you up. And we go out we have a few drinks and a few laughs and it’s great. But you know what the best part of my day is? It’s for about ten seconds from when I pull up to the curb to when I get to your door. Because I think maybe I’ll get up there and I’ll knock on the door and you won’t be there. No goodbye, no see you later, no nothin’. Just left. I don’t know much, but I know that.”
Throughout “Good Will Hunting,” Will is barraged by what others want from him, from Lambeau complaining that Will’s drinking and hanging out with his friends will waste his talent, to Sean prompting him toward a career choice that would fulfill him, to Skylar asking him to move with her across the country. But it’s Chuckie’s admission, and how out of character he is during that speech—his forlornness, and his finality—that sticks with Will. This isn’t his best friend who struts around in an endless array of flashy tracksuits, or relentlessly mocks Morgan, or flirts with any woman who will give him the time of day. This Chuckie is aware of his own mortality, of the exact trajectory and plateau his life will take, and he’s already tired.
Chuckie’s rejection of Will’s insistence that the only honorable work is the back-breaking monotony of physical labor is what finally pushes him toward a different sort of life, and sets the next series of events in motion. Sean’s breakthrough with Will, and the transformative power of his repeated “It’s not your fault.” Will’s return home, the train tracks unfurling ahead of him, his future uncertain. His final meeting with Sean, and the older man’s parting advice: “You do what’s in your heart, son. You’ll be fine.” And his 21st birthday celebration with Chuckie, Bill, and Morgan, when they surprise him with his own car, a menagerie of scrounged castoffs compiled into something usable that they all worked on together. The car’s components had been through hell, but it would still run, Bill swears. It still has purpose.
The film’s final moments, then, are devoted not to the kind of knowledge that Will already possessed. The math proof he burned in front of Lambeau remains as ash. His clinical analysis of Sean’s painting is forgiven by the mentor who eventually broke through his walls. What comes next is the self-actualization we’ve seen Will grow over time, and the confidence to strike out on his own. All those years with Chuckie, Bill, and Morgan, the boys who grew alongside him into men, and who never left his side. That bond with Sean, who saw past Will’s brashness and gave him another chance. Hanging out as healing—and healing as letting go. When Will quotes Sean back to him, saying he’s going to “see about a girl,” and when he tells Chuckie nothing at all. The half-grin that spreads across Chuckie’s face when he looks into Will’s empty house, and when he shrugs to Bill and Morgan, “He’s not there.” And Will’s car on the open road, the shot wider than the film’s preceding visual style to include as much verdant greenery and endless asphalt as possible. Will venturing into the unknown, far from Southie and Cambridge both.
23 years after its release, “Good Will Hunting” is a melancholy, affecting thing. Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who contributed so much to the soundtrack, killed himself in 2003. His performance at the 70th Academy Awards, sparse and sad and so unlike the overly produced awards shows to come, feels like a cultural artifact that can never be recreated. Like so many of Smith’s songs, “Miss Misery,” written for “Good Will Hunting”—which lost to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”—regarded his bouts of depression and addiction with a combination of fondness and wariness. Eleven years later, Robin Williams would take his own life, too. For millennials like me who grew up on Williams’ films—“Hook” and “Aladdin” and “Ferngully,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Birdcage” and “Jumanji”—it was a particularly gutting loss. I wept when I heard the news, and I reached for my “Good Will Hunting” Blu-ray. During these past few months, as the coronavirus pandemic has perhaps forever changed how we live, I’ve reached for it again. Sean’s “It’s not your fault” was restorative then, still is now, and remains an eternal reminder of Williams’s evocative energy as an actor. The catharsis provided by Damon and Affleck’s best film has gotten more bittersweet with time, but it hasn’t faded. “F**k them, OK?” Sean had said to Will of his abusers and his doubters, his curse a comfort on every subsequent rewatch of “Good Will Hunting,” a film whose healing message makes clear its current relevance.