Experience Review – Good Will Hunting

Yeah, the blog title sounds corny and pretentious, but ef the police. I wanted to do something different, do something to acknowledge what Good Will Hunting did for me on my first viewing ever of this film last night, and the title was one way. This movie wasn’t just a movie, but an experience and a life lesson. Let’s talk about why and how.

Released in 1997, Good Will Hunting is a drama film centred around Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a genius with psychological issues stemming from his past. The majority of the film sees him opening up to and bonding with Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a psychologist who also has problems of his own.

I am now convinced that the most important genre in film is drama. It’s not that I ever considered horror to be particularly insightful regarding the human psyche, or comedy to be the layman’s healthy dose of philosophy; it’s just that I’ve never considered what makes a film important, but now that I’ve given it some thought, it seems the most important films are about life. Sounds fairly obvious (consider the art itself has been and is called drama), and while many films out there try to do it (portray drama), they, for some reason or another, end up becoming self-indulgent and egocentric “pieces of art”, more concerned with its own identity as a film than what it actually has to say. Good Will Hunting doesn’t do that, or maybe it does it in the best way possible: with methods that are unconscious and/or invisible to the audience. It has something to say, and it speaks honestly, like a lifelong friend who wants to sit down and have a heart-to-heart.

So how does it begin?

Disclaimer: I’m not a professional film critic, nor am I film arts student. I’m not claiming this is a dissertation on brilliant film-making, only that this film made me feel something, and I wanted to talk about how it affected me, both in terms of what it did, and what it ended up doing.

Complexity Presented Simple

How do you like dem apples?
How do you like dem apples?

Within the first five minutes we are shown the complexity of Will’s character. He first shows up as a janitor, but there’s obviously something else going on as we see him staring at a math problem on the chalkboard. The very next scene introduces us to his peculiar situation: he appears to be academically inclined but is stuck in a rough part of the neighbourhood, and he also has aggressive tendencies, getting into a street fight and sent to jail. But his friends are funny; they’re a tight-knit group, and they look out for one another.

Good Will Hunting is an original screenplay written by Damon and Ben Affleck. Though they put it through the ringer with several producers, writers, and directors, it is amazing how quickly and efficiently they manage to portray Damon’s character with all his inner problems, his desire to be something more, and his vital attachment to his friends. Not only is this great writing, but the quicker we can establish Will’s character, the more time the film has to fit in everything else that comes after, which ends up being critical because this film ends up saying a lot.

The Nature of Drama

There’s a critical difference between Drama and a work that cries “look at all the sad things happening; be sad for the protagonist!”. Let’s consider a pair of non-drama film and how it deals with Drama for a moment.

In Batman Begins, the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne is made all the more poignant because we see what they were like before they die. Thomas is a loving father, and the Wayne family are wealthy philanthropists actively pursuing their dream of making Gotham a safer and more fair place to live. They inevitably die over a weakness on Bruce’s part, directly tying Bruce’s decision to become Batman with this one event, and making him a sympathetic character. That’s Drama because the audience completely understands Bruce Wayne’s loss and pain, because we’ve been shown everything we need to know to care about the characters.

In Batman V Superman, however, the same motif fails spectacularly. We see an older Bruce lamenting in his family’s mausoleum, and we get a cut to the moment of his parents’ death. Unlike in Batman Begins, we are not given any scenes whatsoever as to what Thomas and Martha Wayne are like, or even what Bruce was like as a kid, and his relationship with his parents. It’s taken for granted that audience members would intuit the sorrow of a child losing their parents, but it’s not that simple. Most of us didn’t see our parents gunned down in the street before our eyes; however, most of us can understand what it means to lose one’s childhood, to lose the feeling of reciprocal respect, love, and admiration that occurs in most parent-child relationship, to lose someone we thought was going to be with us and guide us through the rest of our lives. BvS doesn’t convey any, choosing to rely on audience experience rather than show us this is what Bruce Wayne lost. If it’s not shown to the audience, how do we relate to the character?

Thus, drama only succeeds when you show us why losing something is so important and means so much to the character. And you can’t cheat by making assumptions about how the audience will feel.

Just looking at this photo... I can't even...
Just looking at this photo… I can’t even…

With all that being said, how in the hell does Good Will Hunting manage to execute Drama by having two characters talking? Good storytelling is about showing, rather than telling, and the nature of dialogue means it is strictly telling. Despite this, the segments in which Williams and Damon are together remain as some of the most impactful and emotional scenes today.

This is because movies have the extra dimension of being visual, and not only are the words themselves important, but also how they’re delivered, including context, tone of the actor’s delivery, how it’s received by other characters, the relation of the lines with what the audience already knows (or can presume), camera angle, accompanying music, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, the words are very important, and the script is what makes Good Will Hunting half as good as it is. The lines can comfort you and make you laugh when we’re hanging out with Will’s friends, but it can also break you open and speak directly to your heart and conscience as well. The writing here is indeed an extraordinary accomplishment, and a principal study in how to make people feel using simple language and intimate yet provocative ideas.

However, going back to the how scenes are played out, this is where the art of acting comes in, and both Damon and Williams convinced me I was watching something beyond theatre, something that touched the soul. Check this out. That is the first result when searching “Good Will Hunting Scene”, and rightly so. In his performance for this movie, Williams invokes every molecule of his actor’s body to transcend a scene from being just a script into a perfectly distilled moment in time. It’s a case where the sum of all parts is greater than the whole; the sadness in his eyes, his subtle gestures, his intonation, the way the camera pans to slowly include Will at the end, and the inexplicable and arresting belief that he means every word that he says (Williams, not Maguire), that he’s teaching us a lesson while letting us in on one of life’s secrets at the same time. That is greatness in acting, and it is consistent both throughout the whole of Good Will Hunting and with the rest of the cast.

Williams and Damon are able to lure us in and capture us because they are being genuine through their characters. They speak frankly and truthfully, not just on behalf of the characters they’re playing but to life itself, both in the good and the bad moments. The Drama here works because when someone tells you their life story and pours their heart out, it’s simply impossible not to care.

The Personal Touch

The climax of this film sees the character of Will finally coming to terms with his past, not only being forced to confront it but also to be released from it with the help of Maguire, and the end result is a man crying all the tears he’s bottled since childhood. I don’t need to talk about why this is one of the greatest scenes of all time, because anyone who’s ever seen it knows it, even if they can’t articulate how or why. What no one else knows, however, is what this scene did for me, so maybe that’s worth talking about, eh?

You and I, we’re strangers on the Internet, so forgive me for not spilling my guts out here for everyone to see. I am, however, willing to say how much I know life sucks sometimes. One of the most fatal and empowering aspects of being human is that we depend on others for our happiness; consequently, it is the people we care about that end up disappointing us the most. Well, sometimes it’s other people, and sometimes it’s merely circumstances. We don’t get to choose who we’re born to, or where, but whether we’re born to billionaire parents, or in a tiny hut in Sudan, and whether you graduate from Harvard or get no farther than a fifth grader’s education in your village’s run-down school, we all got problems. We have things holding us back, mentally and physically, things from the past that just won’t let go, pulling us down under like seaweed entangling our legs. But we also all have memories of pure joy, of love everlasting and unconditional, or friendships tethering us to reality, and moments that make it all worthwhile. We have ups and downs, but the breadth of experience is such that sometimes we feel like we’re flying, and other times we feel nothing, nothing at all; a deadly void where thoughts and feelings used to be, vanished as quickly as a summer’s day.

Which is why when Robin Williams repeated over and over again: “It’s not your fault”, I was completely taken apart. He was talking to me directly; I knew it because it was what I needed to hear. And yet at the same time I knew he was talking to Will, and maybe even himself. My story isn’t parallel to Will’s, but the themes are similar, and seeing and understanding Will’s character and how he deserved to be released, it really makes you wonder: “why not me?”.

Despite this being the most powerful moment in the film, I still don’t believe this was the reason why the film is amazing. Like I said earlier, it’s the sum of its parts. Great acting, great story, great characters, and a great message to everyone getting along in their own way. It all comes together to offer not just a breath of fresh air, but a first breath at a new life.

In Conclusion…

When you get down to it, Good Will Hunting is a pizza where the only topping is onion, and the tomato sauce is actually onion sauce, and the crust is made out of onion slices. And it’s delicious.

I recommend this film to anyone and everyone. Of course, there will be people for whom this movie won’t do anything, such as those who enjoy kicking puppies and driving the speed limit in the passing lane. For the rest of us, it’ll be two hours well spent.

At the conclusion of this review I have realized I haven’t referred to this movie as a work of art, and I really don’t think it is. It’s a statement about life, which I think is even more prestigious (critics will differ). It isn’t difficult to see how Damon’s and Affleck’s careers skyrocketed after this film; the only strange thing is they haven’t written much since.

This movie jumped right into my top 5 as soon as it was over, but I am still looking forward to sharing future movie reviews with you, gamobo reader. Hopefully it won’t be long until our next experience!

This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.

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