Just a few weeks ago, I reviewed 1989’s Dead Poets Society, a film featuring one of Robin Williams’ best dramatic roles. It even picked him up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance. For me, it’s a push though when you stop and consider Williams’ overall acting parts. That conversation includes both Dead Poets and 1997’s Good Will Hunting.
Working as a janitor at M.I.T., Will Hunting (Matt Damon) has a pretty simple life. He works, reads, and enjoys hanging out with his friends in south Boston. There’s something special about Will though, something he only lets out in small doses. Will is an absolute genius, able to understand complex mathematical equations at will, an almost photographic memory aiding the cause. It’s more than that though. He gets in trouble with the law though, but when a professor (Stellan Skarsgard) at M.I.T. finds out what this janitor is capable of, he cuts a deal with the court to earn Will’s release. One of the requirements of the release is simple; Will must go to a psychiatrist and talk about his past, his anger, his life. He chases one away after another until he finally meets Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a psychiatrist who finally challenges him.
Like ‘Dead Poets,’ I sought out ‘Hunting’ after the tragic passing of Robin Williams a few weeks ago. His death is still settling in weeks later, the tributes still revealing themselves as fans continue to realize what a true talent he was. Both for William’s performance and the entire cast, ‘Hunting is a gem, director Gus Van Sant helming a film that picked up nine Oscar nominations, ultimately winning two; Best Supporting Actor for Williams, Best Original Screenplay for Damon and Ben Affleck. It is the best kind of drama, a story interested in the people, the relationships, the real life drama. There are some true BIG dramatic moments, but they never feel forced. They feel very real. This was the movie that put Matt Damon and Ben Affleck on the map in a big way, a huge window into the talents they were and would become. The reason for revisiting the movie was unfortunate, but the movie itself is a gem.
The script from Damon and Affleck is a pretty perfect jumping off point. It paints a great picture of the characters and a true variety of characters. We’re talking full-fledged, red-blooded, 3-D characters that act and talk like real people. That starts with Damon’s Will Hunting. We learn as the story develops what makes Will the way he is, his checkered past littered with violence, his life growing up in foster homes. Rocking an epic Boston accent, Damon kills the part. Will isn’t an easy character to like because he does such a good job pushing people away, but you’re rooting for him just the same. You want him to figure things out, to open up, to trust some. Damon is one of the best actors currently working in Hollywood, a true talent, and this is definitely one of his best.
Damon’s performance is uniformly strong, but the scenes that resonate the most are those in which he interacts with Williams’ Sean. These scenes take place in Sean’s cluttered, homey office, a lived-in feel for sure as Sean, a psychiatrist and professor at a junior college, gets to know the troubled Will. These scenes develop like a chess match, two professionals duking it out, looking for strengths and weaknesses. Why does it work? It plays effortlessly. This isn’t acting but two guys having a conversation. It isn’t always easy to watch, but it’s always fascinating. Will’s early “analysis” of Sean, Sean’s shot back at his brilliant mind, Sean’s explaining about his own past, including a great scene about the 1975 World Series and Carlton Fisk’s famous home run, they all ring true. A true talent in Robin Williams, bringing out the best in all his scenes.
Who else to look for? This isn’t a huge cast, but what’s there is prime. Helping give a window into Will, again, is the script as we see his day-to-day life, meeting his friends as they go bar-hopping, hang out on the weekends. Affleck is a scene-stealer as Chuckie, Will’s longtime best friend, loyal to a fault but also wanting his friend to reach out and take what he can with his gift, his mind. Also look for Casey Affleck and Cole Hauser as two other close friends. Minnie Driver is a gem too as Skylar, an incredibly smart med student who clicks instantly with Will but struggles to get to know him as he puts his walls up. As well, Skarsgard is excellent as a professor with a similarly brilliant mind but not one on the same level as Will. An incredibly talented cast, not a weakness in the bunch.
As I mentioned, this is a movie about the personal drama. If I delve into the story anymore, it’s going to involve giving away some great scenes that should come naturally in the process of watching the film. Me talking about it would be one spoiler after another. Great story, great characters, cool locations in and around Boston, and a pretty cool ending on so many levels. Well worth catching up with. Highly recommended, and again, R.I.P. Robin Williams.
Good Will Hunting (1997): *** ½ /****