Film Analysis | Film Reviews

Good Will Hunting: A Review

1 Jan , 1998  

Written by Kiersten Conner-Sax | Posted by:

This much acclaimed local film by famed director Gus Van Sant drew lines outside the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts even on New Year's Eve. What can you expect from this New England gem? Read and find out...

To praise with faint damnation, the only things that annoyed me about Good Will Hunting were the occasional slips in Ben Affleck’s South Boston accent. Even Minnie Driver couldn’t find a means of irritating me. Friends told me it was a "feel good" movie, and the occasional television commercial inspired in me a dread of a possible Dead Poet’s Circle of Friends, or Chasing the Rainmaker, or something like that, though I suspected things were going to be all right when I saw director Gus Van Sant’s name scroll through the opening credits. Instead, the film, written by Affleck and star Matt Damon, presents something I’d begun to assume lost: a coming-of-age story that’s actually worth telling. In short, you won’t find a single character wearing a goatee.

Will Hunting is an orphaned young genius, assigned by his parole officer to a janitorial job at MIT. After solving a difficult theorem posted on a hallway blackboard, he is discovered by mathematics professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard). Lambeau wants to "save" Will from his life of drinking and brawling with his working-class friends, and in the process connects him with therapist and old friend Sean McGuire (Robin Williams). The rest of the film recounts, as stated, Will’s coming of age: will he take a job at the Cambridge think tank, or remain tied to Chuckie (Affleck) and Southie?

That the movie excites the viewer’s interest is a testament to the quality of both the script and Van Sant’s direction. Good Will Hunting’s fairly conventional, overdose-free storytelling is a departure from his drug-soaked early films (Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho), and from the brilliant complexity of the recent To Die For. The uniformly high quality of the performances must be a testament to him: Damon is believably cuddly and frightening at the same time; it’s delightful to watch him doing everything from taunting therapists with renditions of "Afternoon Delight" to smiling at his girlfriend. Skarsgard embodies perfectly a professor who truly believes it is his mission to deliver tomorrow’s Einstein to the world. Robin Williams, however, centers the film with his sublime, unsentimental performance as a therapist who chose love over academic genius; he touches genuine emotional chords from the first mention of his lost wife’s name.

Damon and Affleck grew up together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the film is replete with scenes of Harvard and MIT—and the alleys and row houses of South Boston. The script is full of orphans and dead wives and English heiresses and fart jokes, of all things, and it’s wonderful. The measure of its success can be measured by what it isn’t: Will isn’t saved by love, no breakthrough comes from recitations of abuse, and there aren’t any tear-filled reunions or planes taking off at the end—just a well-earned conclusion that feels both true and satisfying.