Let’s face it. If someone told me that two virtually unknown actors wrote a film that they wanted to act in, I would believe it to to something like “The Room”. “Good Will Hunting” is essentially that same scenario. Believe it or not, both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were practically unknown actors, with Damon only having minor roles in TV and indie films before this and Affleck’s only major films were “School Ties”, “Dazed and Confused”, and Kevin Smith’s non-“Clerks” output, before this film. They wrote it because it was the parts that they always wanted. And when Miramax ate it up and released it, it seemed like the film that would bring them to superstardom.
Damon is Will Hunting, a genius with a short temper and a want to do physical labor, as he believes that that is the best path for him to take. When he gets arrested for a fight, an MIT professor who saw him solve an extremely difficult problem, offers him out in exchange for doing research with him and seeing a psychologist, Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams).
The plot seems like a typical inspirational drama. That’s because the film largely plays out exactly like a typical inspirational drama. Will is unwilling to change or accept the opportunities he can get because he doesn’t want to leave his friends or work in an office. Dr. Maguire wants to get close to him, but also has his own problems which he is having trouble overcoming. So, how did this become a film within the pantheon of of great films?
Dialogue and acting. Gus Van Sant, the indie weirdo who can do good films, but usually does films like “Gerry”, “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues”, and the 1999 remake of “Psycho”, is directing by choice of the two screenwriters, Damon and Affleck, who liked his film “My Own Private Idaho”. Van Sant’s biggest strength is getting great performances out of his actors. And that is what he does here. The script, while very informed by the fact that Affleck did work with Kevin Smith, is top notch, among the best ever written. Will Hunting is an asshole wasting his potential, but he can get the audience’s sympathy because he doesn’t feel like he is. Maguire could have very well become just another inspirational mouthpiece, but Robin Williams gives him plenty of humanity and a touch of gravitas. Even the supporting cast gives good performances. This became a classic because of the non-visual elements, which works because the film is shot like any other movie.
The story is powerful because the characters are sympathetic, which is because the direction was solid, which was because the script was top-tier. This is an example of a film that hinges so very much on one element, but that one element is good enough to excel the film. That it lost to the abysmal “Titanic” for Best Picture that year is a disgrace. If you ever need to cheer, come and see this film.
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgård