Reflections on "Good Will Hunting"

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck

Starring Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Stellan Skarsgard and Minnie Driver


A video presentation of this material is available here.


"Good Will Hunting" has something of a European feel about it in that it is primarily a character piece about personal growth, but its pace and entertainment value highlight its American pedigree.

The story is fairly predictable but the film delivers in a highly engaging, touching and at times amusing way. How it arrives at its conclusion is perhaps more important than the conclusion itself.

Friendship, relationships, education and personal development are among the themes that are explored, but underpinning everything is a debate about what constitutes success in life.

Will is a 20-year-old self-taught genius who displays talent in a number of fields as he appears to possess a photographic memory, allowing him to retain facts and text with remarkable clarity. However, his talent goes beyond mere memory recall as he sees connections between things and passes reasoned judgments, revealing a sharp intelligence and "soul" or compassion.

Will is also socially damaged. He is an orphan who has been passed from pillar to post when growing up and who has suffered physical and emotional abuse and neglect, the result of which is a difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships. This is accentuated, perhaps, by his wit and intelligence which propel his willingness to speak up and criticise. He has by-passed the traditional norms in terms of family, education and career yet he has satisfied a seemingly voracious appetite for knowledge and understanding by reading prodigiously in a local library. He is also quite lacking in a sense of self-worth, undoubtedly due to the effects of the abuse and neglect he endured in his formative years.

He has a group of poorly educated and unsophisticated but faithful and sincere friends who all support one another despite regular bickering and teasing. When Will and his friend Chuckie first meet student Skylar in a bar in Harvard, her fellow student, Clark, attempts to belittle the open and friendly Chuckie with a display of confidence and knowledge about economic factors in American southern society prior to the Civil War. Will is able to challenge not just the historical perspective offered by Clark but, more importantly, his mindless regurgitation of facts and text gleaned from others' work. Will accuses Clark of unoriginality of thought and wasting large amounts of money on an education that could be gained simply by reading books freely available in a public library, implying that society values a costly certificate more highly than knowledge and education itself. Clark replies that even if that is so, he, Clark, will remain superior as he will have a degree and a good job while Will may end up serving Clark's kids in a fast-food restaurant.

Will is left quite unperturbed by Clark's assertion, going on to suggest that even if that were the case, he would rather be original, and perhaps by implication remain true to himself, than pursue Clark's traditional and uninspiring means of measuring achievement.

This is the film's first allusion to an apparent predilection for the value of personal fulfilment over academic or social success. The juxtaposition and possible opposition of these two outcomes or pursuits is hinted at or alluded to at various other points in the film and, indeed, the choice between the two may even be viewed as the very crux of the film around which the several other themes and issues turn.

Professor Gerry Lambeau and Sean Maguire were roommates at university and were very close, though life choices have since separated them. Both work in the field of education, with Gerry winning the illustrious Fields Medal and achieving a professorship at the prestigious and costly M.I.T., while Sean teaches psychology in a local reasonably-priced Community College. Gerry has pursued a high-flown career in academia working with the elite in students and Sean works quietly and unceremoniously helping ordinary students make educational progress.

When Will gets himself into trouble with the courts, he is released on two conditions, that he should be supervised by Gerry (who is dazzled by Will's mathematical prowess and who will go to considerable lengths to help Will develop and apply his abilities) and that he should undergo therapy, for which Gerry eventually turns to his old but estranged friend Sean.

Gerry appears to have devoted himself to academia and his career. No mention is made of personal relationships, though he flirts occasionally with young students in a somewhat furtive and perhaps duplicitous manner which suggests a lack of relational experience and emotional depth.

Sean, on the other hand, was married to the love of his life and is still in mourning after her recent death. Pursuing a career was certainly subordinate to the personal joy and satisfaction of being with his love as the happiness and fulfilment he gained from his relationship appears to have transcended any career-orientated gratification.

Gerry cannot see beyond (or behind) Will's mathematical genius and all he could accomplish in academic and social terms if he were employed by any one of a number of interested parties who could put his talents to good use.

Sean is concerned with the impact Will's history of abuse may have on his character, disposition and especially the choices he will make for his future.

In a scene vaguely reminiscent of Will's encounter with Harvard student Clark, these two friends argue in a bar over which direction Will should take and at one point Gerry suggests, in frustration at Sean's refusal to concede to his view, that Sean is driven by jealousy of his awards and success, thus emphasising Gerry's lack of emotional intelligence and his failure to truly understand his friend's point of view. Gerry even goes so far as to denigrate Sean's choice of direction in life, implying he is a failure. Sean angrily refutes Gerry's judgment and accuses him of arrogance but he makes no attempt to defend his life choices, perhaps because he knows Gerry could never understand or concede to his viewpoint but also, perhaps, because he is entirely happy with the choices he has made.

Despite infrequent meetings and clearly differing priorities in life, these two men have remained good friends and shortly after their argument, both demonstrate the esteem in which they hold their friendship by opting to ignore their disagreement and the cutting personal remarks each made to the other. The dichotomy between social and academic achievement and personal fulfilment is encapsulated and embodied by these two well-intentioned but very different men. Perhaps we need both these perspectives if we are to make anything of our lives and these two characters reflect the conflict within each of us when we consider choices we must make and directions to follow.

Will and Gerry's relationship may be characterised as that of a proud mentor and a gifted student. Gerry displays pride, respect, some envy and perhaps a degree of reflected glory as he is dazzled by Will's brilliance and potential. However, it boils down to plundering his talent for the benefit of others in return for position, plaudits, accolades and money - all goals Gerry aspires to and towards which he will guide Will. Their relationship is not based on emotional attachment, holistic interest or nurturing of character. It is about social and academic success.

The relationship between Will and Sean is more akin to that of father and son, indeed by the end of their time together Sean refers to him as "son" and at one point when Will wonders if Sean is mocking him, Will says he can't take that, not from him, suggesting Sean has come to hold a special and hallowed place in Will's heart.

From the outset, Sean is interested in Will the man, not Will the mathematician. They come to share intimate thoughts, experiences and feelings, helping Will evolve and deal with issues that have long since troubled him and have been a source of pain and problems with social integration. It is not easy at first and Sean shows deep-felt anger when Will tries to manipulate him and pushes him too far on personal issues. This display of humanity and hurt touches Will to some degree and eventually he participates in conversation which leads to discussion and friendship, and friendship is what they both need at this point in their lives. Will needs a father-figure with whom he can discuss matters of emotional depth and Sean needs to talk out his grief and feelings of self-imposed isolation and solitude. Each challenges the other to open up and discover possibilities life has in store for them.

Will tires of Gerry's monotonous insistence on logical and mathematical puzzles which are, by dint of his extraordinary gifts, far less taxing and compelling to Will than they are to Gerry. Throughout the film, when Will solves a problem it gives him some satisfaction, perhaps explaining why he took a job at M.I.T., but it does not provide the same joy and excitement it may give to someone with less ability. Academic success means less to Will, exactly because there is little challenge.

Will is far more intrigued by relationships, perhaps because he has not yet learned, due to his tragic history of neglect and abuse, how to initiate and maintain a lasting relationship. He can learn nothing from Gerry, either mathematically or emotionally, but he sees possibilities in his association with Sean. And Skylar.

When Will meets Skylar, who is a well-balanced, thoughtful and caring individual, his life starts to change as he learns he can respect and develop feelings for another, but he must share thoughts, feelings and truth if he is going to make it work and allow her to reciprocate his feelings. At first, due to issues arising from his low self-esteem and thinking the relationship will be short-lived, Will concocts a familial background (which is somewhat exaggerated) in keeping with traditional and successful family situations and values in order to fit in and to impress Skylar. Eventually, he comes to realise that in so doing he is actually jeopardising his chances of success in the relationship and also that true happiness and fulfilment can only be realised if he changes and comes to terms with his past.

In the end, change or evolution require challenge and Sean and Skylar prompt development in Will while his friends, however touchingly and blindly supportive they may be, cannot elicit the change required for him to evolve. Chuckie recognises this when he tells Will that the best part of his day is when he approaches Will's home in the morning and he hopes that Will will no longer be there. He recognises the need for Will to escape their circle, though he and Will's other friends really can't point him in the right direction. They can, however, continue to support their friend and provide him with the physical means of achieving escape by gifting him a car for his birthday.

Both Sean and Skylar (eventually) recognise the inhibiting effects of Will's past and the emotional and psychological issues it has engendered, and they are willing to help Will overcome them and allow him to fulfil his potential as a fully-functioning and well-adjusted human being.

By abandoning a steady company position in favour of seeking out Skylar in California in the vehicle provided by his friends, Will is taking the first step on his way to investing in himself and achieving personal fulfilment.

The script and direction allow individual characters to develop in their own right while contributing to our understanding of the main character, his issues and the reasons for his choice at the end of the film.

While all the actors play well, special credit must go to Matt Damon and Robin Williams. Damon incites compassion for Will and he imbues Will with just the right degree of vulnerability, thought and challenge to make him interesting as well as emotionally engaging.

Robin Williams is simply masterful in his role, making Sean broken, defiant, human, vulnerable and real. I've often marvelled at the way comedians can transform into great actors and I think Robin Williams proved that point here as he gives a controlled, touching and towering performance.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (