It's Not About You, You Mathematical Dick!: Good Will Hunting (1997)

Oh my it has been nearly a month and some change since I scribed anything here on the blog.  I have just come up for air from a hellish semester, which included many papers, a few presentations and a ton of other things.  All the while I was watching countless films, but failed to put together my thoughts on any of them in favor of reading or writing (mostly about film) in its various formats.  While I doubt I will be blogging with any consistency over the summer, I do hope to be much more present than I was at the end of this school year and I might even be bold enough to attempt to have a marathon in July or August, who sees, I would have to pick a genre and commit to it and definitely plan ahead of time.  With that in mind, I have indeed been watching some rather enjoyable films, a few of which I desperately wanted to write about but simply did not have the time whether they be the deeply engaging documentaries like Michael Jackson's This Is It and the Japanese political study Campaign, or Koreeda Hirokazu's newest film Like Father, Like Son I had thoughts that were shared on Letterboxd, but little time to outright reflect and compose a string of thoughts on the film.  I even had an entire idea bout how I was going to talk about the mechanized nature of King Vidor's adaptation of The Fountainhead, but this too fell to the wayside when I was finishing up work for professors on the last days of class.  I have found something to return to the blog with in the way of Good Will Hunting, one of the countless films that was present on my shame list, particularly since I am a fan of the work of Gus Van Sant, and was fully aware of the critical acclaim surrounding this film.  Although it does suffer from falling to the wayside for other more contemporary Oscar babes, there is something particularly profound about what is occurring in Good Will Hunting that culminates into the rare perfect film a topic I know I have discussed in the past.  Between the precise writing of then aspiring stars Damon and Affleck, a idiosyncratic, yet universally accessible performance by Robin Williams and the keen eye of Van Sant, it is hard to find fault in a work like Good Will Hunting.  Furthermore, it is hard to create a narrative that exists within the space of Boston that does not instantly become muddled in its own seedy, working class ennui, so much so that the narrative itself becomes sullied in its insistence on being rough around the edges (a fault that is present in some of Affleck's directorial work).  Unsullied by any falsities, Good Will Hunting is the ideal Oscar picture, one that is sound in its execution, but never too on-the-nose to be rejected as a pandering to the masses.

Good Will Hunting focuses primarily on the title character Will Hunting (Matt Damon) a former orphan turned janitor who works at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, although his presence goes quietly unnoticed considering his occupation.  Will stays, instead, close with his friends from the working class Boston area, specifically Chuckie (Ben Affleck).  The group tends to spend their evenings drinking and occasionally brawling against local rivals.  It is during one particular day that Will takes it upon himself to solve a presumably unsolvable equation put forth by praised MIT professor Dr. Lambeau (Stella Skarsgård) that things change drastically.  The surprised Lambeau seeks out the janitor and attempts to convince him of his skills and indeed saves him from having to spend time in jail by noting that he could instead work as one of his students while also receiving counseling.  Will, however, jaded by the system of orphans, wherein he was subject to various types of abuse, finds ways to challenge the authority of the figures who are 'helping' him while also proving that he is smarter in every way, particularly by reading their works or outwitting them in their methodologies.  Nearly at the breaking point, Dr. Lambeau seeks help from his former college roommate turned community college psychology professor Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) who happened to grow up in the same working class neighborhood as Will.  Although, his methods are wildly unconventional, even Sean immediately finds Will a handful, taking particular offense when Will begins prying about his late wife.  Still, Sean sees through Will's defenses to find the pained figure and pushes to make the young man see his potential, allowing him a space of silence and only affording him a point to speak when he feels it necessary.  Yet, a variety of other endeavours challenge Will including a burgeoning romantic relationship with Harvard student Skylar (Minnie Driver) and the prospect of countless jobs from agencies who seek to profit from his mathematical mind.  Will seems resilient to change, as it would require himself to open up and approach a world that he only knows as harsh and violent.  When he seeks reassurance in safety from Chuckie he is met with surprise when Chuckie too demands that he leave Boston for bigger and better things.  Though gracious to Dr. Lambeau for the opportunities, Will choses his own path one that he is guided towards by Sean and by the closing of the film,  Will choses  to move towards the future and escape the safety and solitude of his troubling past.

What makes Good Will Hunting work as a piece of cinema is almost entirely tied to its formalist and structuralist element, indeed, this is often the case when I throw around the phrase 'perfect film.'  In most situations it is evidenced of a well-made a perfectly composed piece of art.  Although there are exceptions when the film choses to be systematicaly subversive in its construct yet still achieves a high degree of success (Breathless, The Night of the Hunter and Nashville come to mind), Good Will Hunting is outright a piece of poised and precise filmmaking.  Gus Van Sant is an exceptional director and clearly works from a space of ideal versions, as opposed to simply churning out another film for profit.  I am fully aware that he has come under criticism for more recent works like Restless, but I even find that to be an exceptional work.  What he manages to evoke as a filmmaker is nothing short of a vision.  Taking on the work of newly emerging writers is one thing, but to chose to cast them in the lead roles is another risk all its own.  Furthermore, Van Sant realizes the power of the unconventional, his own queering of cinema taking on multiple layers in every work, here subverting the idea of who can play a serious role and how violence and trauma can manifest themselves in the subtlest of manners.  In one of the more telling scenes of the film, Chuckie is bemoaning Will's lack of ambition and the entire portion of dialogue is delivered by Affleck, yet the camera pans past Affleck to capture the reaction shots of Damon who is putting acting sublimely, each gesture of his brow or slight curling of his lip reacting.  A lesser film would have done a proper shot/reaction shot composition and thus the emotiveness of the scene would be lost.  What makes Good Will Hunting reside in the space of the perfect is that it works nearly organically, the camera follows action and at times viewers are led to believe that the actors themselves are working in a space of purely improvisational dialogue, this is almost certainly the case for Williams whose comedic moments add a delightful flare to more than one occasion of tension.  Where the film works beyond the normative is in how Van Sant frame desire though, in what seem like throw away moments, a lingering arm over the shoulder, or a head being slightly out of frame, becomes a suggestion on the complexities of relationships that manage to make Good Will Hunting both specific to one young man's journey and decidedly universal in its advocation of escaping the many points of complacency life might offer.

Key Scene:  The lecture that Chuckie delivers to Will while on lunch break at the construction site, is really the crux of this film, although it is one of many moments of absolutely astounding formalist filmmaking throughout.

This is a definitive work of contemporary filmmaking, to avoid it because it is critically-acclaimed would be a dire mistake.  If you have not seen it, seek it out immediately.

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