Good will hunting, Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. With Matt
Damon, Minnie Driver, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgard,
Casey Affleck, and Cole Hauser. A Miramax Films release.
Overshadowed by the new celebrity of local heroes Matt Damon and Ben
Affleck, co-writers and stars of Good Will Hunting, is the revelation
that director Gus Van Sant, who has given us such black comic assaults on the
American way as Drugstore Cowboy and To Die For, has a warm and
fuzzy side. This is a movie that fits in comfortably with the Yuletide season,
but it's no Hallmark greeting card. Although celebrating the redemptive power
of love, loyalty, sacrifice, and genius, it roots its feel-good message in
performances, dialogue, and a locale as pungently authentic as the smell of
corned beef and cabbage.
Hunting opens with a credit sequence of close-ups of mathematical
formulas and printed words -- and indeed the film that follows combines
by-the-numbers plotting (and over-involved subplotting) with inspired,
brilliantly crafted language. The latter is spouted most often by young Will
Hunting (Matt Damon, with this and The Rainmaker proving that his sudden
stardom is not just hype), a young punk from South Boston who, when he's not
hanging out with his buddy Chuckie (Ben Affleck -- street-worn, menacing, and
endearing), is secretly writing out the solutions to humungous math problems at
MIT, where he works as a janitor. This surprises and kindles the ambition of
Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard -- what's the deal with him playing
Americans despite the Danish accent?), who wants to hunt the mystery prodigy
down and take him under his wing.
Unlike the heroes of such similar films as Phenomenon and
Charly, Will's no sweetie. In keeping with the movie's penchant for
Dickensian extremes, he's not just a genius but an abused orphan as well. He
has a pop-psychological checklist of behavioral problems, and before Lambeau
can find him, Will's been tossed in the slammer for assaulting an officer (the
brutal street fight and Will's subsequent encounter with a burned-out
acquaintance in jail are the most Van Santian moments in the film). Making a
deal with the authorities, Lambeau springs Will on the condition that he meet
with him for tutoring and see a therapist.
The latter proves a challenge -- in a deft montage, Will malevolently
demolishes the façades of a series of hoity-toity shrinks until Lambeau
settles on college classmate Sean McGuire (Robin Williams in his bearded,
nurturing mode). Sean's a blue-collar Southie product himself with his own
share of behavioral problems (both his wife and his career are dead -- call it
"The Dead Spouses Society"), and when Will facetiously announces, "Let the
healing begin!", you know the process will be two-way. Despite the formulaic
situation, though, the pair's scenes together resound with humor and emotion.
That's partly because Damon gets the logorrheic role normally reserved for
Williams, delivering erudite free-associative rants at will. It also helps that
Van Sant is willing to let men get close without the protection of
sentimentality or macho bluster.
Whatever the reason for this relationship's chemistry, it's lacking in Will's
courting of Skylar (Minnie Driver), a Harvard student who's also an orphan, and
an heiress to boot. The love subplot, along with a tiresome rivalry between
McGuire and Lambeau, is one of the film's major dragging points. Despite their
off-screen romance, Driver and Damon here seem as forced and awkward as the
exaggerated class differences that are their love's ostensible obstacles.
Driver is much more comfortable when she's one of the boys, telling a vivid
blowjob joke and impressing Chuckie and the rest of Will's townie entourage.
Their relationship convinces most when it's collapsing -- in a high-pitched
scene Will brutally tells her, "I don't love you," and it's a heartbreaking
glimpse at the sado-masochism of true love.
It's also a glimpse at what Will's real problem is. Forget the fears of
abandonment and mistrust of intimacy, it's will itself. He shatters the loving
and the good with his inaccessible genius simply because he can. This
Nietzschean temptation of the great man and his unassailable loneliness gets
glossed over by the director, much as he presents a grittily detailed Southie
somehow devoid of racism, homophobia, or genuine desperation.
Uncharacteristically for Van Sant, this film wants to believe that even in the
heights and the depths of human experience, some redemptive decency can be
found. It may be a spurious happy Hunting ground Van Sant is offering, but with
the help of Damon and Affleck, he makes good.