At some point over the past 14 years it became, for no good reason, hopelessly uncool to like Good Will Hunting. It became a bit of a punch line, shorthand for maudlin mediocrity; Premiere magazine rated it one of the "20 Most Overrated Movies of All Time," alongside such titles as Jules and Jim, Nashville, Moonstruck, and Field of Dreams. (I'd like to nominate Premiere for my list of "1 Most Overrated Movie Magazine," but I digress.) Why? Who knows. For many, the backstage narrative was just two perfect: two young, handsome, but frustrated actors write a screenplay as a vehicle for themselves, which is then made into a beloved movie; they win the Oscar for Best Screenplay and go on to become movie stars. If the writers of the film had looked less like Damon and Affleck and more like, say, Quentin Tarantino, would it have experienced a similar backlash? Doubtful. (So high was disbelief that these good-lookin' fellas could have penned the script that a rather vicious urban legend sprung up, claiming that esteemed screenwriter William Goldman--who had given some notes to the pair early on--had in fact ghost-written the script, a claim he has vociferously denied.)
But that's all off-screen--politics and snark and second-guessing. What is on screen in Gus Van Sant's coming-of-age 1997 drama is what made the film so indelible at the time of its release: it is a warm, sweet, thoughtful examination of facing one's future and coming to terms with one's past. Matt Damon plays Will Hunting, a South Boston troublemaker and manual laborer who works as a janitor at MIT. One day, he stumbles upon a seemingly unsolvable proof on a hallway chalkboard, posted as a challenge to the school's young geniuses by Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård); Will solves it in about thirty seconds flat. By the time Lambeau figures out who his mystery mathematician is, the kid's landed in the clink for an out-of-control street brawl. He works out a deal to get Will off easy, freeing him to work with the professor on advanced mathematics, but it also involves forcing him into therapy.
The trouble with Will is that he's not just smart--he's got a cocky mean streak, and he chews up Lambeau's shrink friends and spits them out. The professor finally has to enlist an old friend: community college instructor Sean Magurie (Robin Williams), who also hails from "Southie" and speaks Will's language. His tentative relationship with Sean is offset by a blossoming romance with Harvard pre-med student Skylar (Minnie Driver), but he tells her inexplicable lies and pulls away as she gets closer.
The narrative is split fairly evenly between his romance with Skylar, his touch-and-go sessions with Sean, and his time with his beer-drinking Southie buddies Chuckie (Ben Affleck), Morgan (Casey Affleck), and Bill (Cole Hauser). At first blush, their thread seems the film's least essential, and that's on purpose; look at how casually we're introduced to them, without proper introductions, allowing us to piece their relationships together via in-jokes and bar banter. People like Professor Lambeau see his friends as barriers to his ambitions, a group, in his words, of "retarded gorillas," but they understand their friend. "My boy's wicked smaht," Morgan notes, and grins. Part of the film's wisdom is in its keen understanding of male camaraderie--how important it is, and simultaneously, how it isn't enough. The latter notion is articulated, with moving ease, in one of the film's best scenes, which finds Will and Chuckie sharing a beer after a hard day of construction work and Chuckie telling his friend exactly what he'll do to him if he doesn't take advantage of the enormous opportunities in front of him. Will shrugs him off, and the entire idea that he owes it to himself to imagine a better life. Chuckie cuts him short: "You don't owe it to yourself. You owe it to me." The complexity of that scene, and of the relationship that is redefined by it, is wonderfully paralleled by the strained history of Lambeau and Sean, who (to the detriment of themselves) did not regard each other with the same selflessness.
What some respond to negatively about Good Will Hunting, I suppose, is the somewhat formulaic construction of Affleck and Damon's screenplay, which had certainly been done before, at least in its broad strokes. But it is the telling of the story, the intricacies and local color, that bring it to such vivid life--characters like Tom (John Mighton), Lambeau's quiet but dedicated teaching assistant, or Bill, the "quiet guy" in Will's loudmouth crew (Hauser reportedly asked for fewer lines, feeling that Bill was the strong, silent type; he's right, and it's a characterization that grows richer with repeated viewings). The emotional content could easily have been overdone, but this is where Van Sant's contributions were most valuable; when in doubt, he seems to have told his cast, underplay, underplay, underplay. He doesn't let them fear doing too little, and the reality of their interactions fully undercut the script's more conventional elements. The romantic subplot could easily have felt tacked-on, but Damon and Driver's chemistry is off the charts (their off-screen relationship at the time of filming gives their scenes a real charge). It is a minor element, but not insignificant, and when they fall out, it doesn't feel like the required second act crisis--it plays real, and heartbreaking, like something private that we shouldn't even see.
The same goes double for the Will-Sean scenes, which begin with a duet of purely masterful acting by both performers; the intensity of their back-and-forth builds, the pauses getting shorter, the exchanges more loaded, until Will finds a button to push and pounds it. Their next scene, a one-sided conversation on a park bench, has a directness and simplicity that is disarming; Williams sheds his usual tics and affectations, while Damon plays the scene fully with him while seeming to do absolutely nothing. (Williams is so good there, and in a later speech about his own regrets, that we're willing to forgive his rather terrible attempt at a Boston accent.) Their final break-through, late in the film, consists of short, simple lines; Williams and Damon deliver them simply, flatly, directly; there's enough happening underneath them that they don't have to push for emotional effect. The day may come, dear reader, when I am so cynical that this scene doesn't get me anymore, that its raw power doesn't give me the heavy heart and misty eyes that it always has. But I sure hope not.
The film's MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer does right by Jean-Yves Escoffier's lovely, autumnal photography. The amber-hued image is strikingly pretty; the green grass and trees of the MIT campus shots are vivid. Grain is occasionally heavy, and skin tones are, in a couple of shots, slightly blown out, but both of those elements were (if memory serves) present in the original theatrical exhibition; the tight close-ups are nicely detailed (I'd never noticed how many freckles are on Damon's face).
The film's emphasis is on dialogue, which is well-handled by the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track--every line is crisp and clean. Environmental ambience is subtle but present: chirping birds in the park, the slight echo in Lambeau's lecture hall, the dense bar audio during Will and Skylar's first encounter. Meanwhile, Danny Elfman's atypically gentle score and the sparse yet lush songs of Elliot Smith lend a charming warmth to the track.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray disc ports over all of the extras from Miramax's 1998 "Collector's Series" DVD, save for the TV commercials (a loss that I'm frankly fine with). Best among them is the Audio Commentary by director Gus Van Sant and writer/stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, which is both witty and informative--all three men are smart and funny, and provide background insight, funny stories, and self-deprecating humor in equal proportion.
Next are eleven worthwhile Deleted Scenes (20:38 total), available with or without additional commentary by Van Sant, Affleck, and Damon. While a few are transitionary throwaways, there are some real gems in here--especially a wonderful scene of Chuckie and Skylar talking privately about Will's odd behavior, and an intriguing alternate version of her airport departure. The original Production Featurette (6:39) is a clip-heavy affair, with a few vintage interview snippets; better is a montage (set to Elfman's score and Smith's "Angeles") of Behind the Scenes footage (3:36) from the shoot.
Also included are the original Theatrical Trailer (2:31), the 1998 Academy Awards Best Picture Montage (:44), and the Music Video(3:17) for Elliot Smith's Oscar-nominated song "Miss Misery" (in standard-def video and audio, unfortunately). The set also comes with a digital copy disc for viewing on portable devices.
"You can do anything you want," Sean Maguire tells Will Hunting. "You are bound by nothing." It's not a line that just goes for janitors-turned-math-whizzes; Good Will Hunting has elements of drama, romance, comedy, and even intrigue, but it is above all an inspirational picture, open-hearted and emotional. Its hero has spent his entire life being told no, and saying no himself, until he realizes that he is surrounded by people--friends, mentors, lovers--who are going to say yes to him until he can hear it. It gets to you, this movie, and those who reject it are beyond our help. They're too busy saying no themselves.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.