By now, you've probably heard Good Will Hunting's story: two upstart actors, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, penned a script about a reckless, orphaned South Boston genius living a directionless life between remedial jobs and roughneck friends. Originally, the idea was to build the script around their acting talents as a showcase of sorts, and because of that, it became a labor of love that took them several years, a handful of directors, and a few production companies to actually get it made. What's born of their determination is a concoction of talents and ideas that rallies into a genuinely evocative character examination; it's a sincere patchwork of drama and wit that, under the helm of Gus Van Sant, succeeds in anchoring this potentially forced story -- one about squandered potential, psychological damage, and whether love can exist among the two -- with intimacy and effervescence.
Will Hunting, an overconfident twenty-year-old janitor at a prestigious college, knows he's a genius. He can plow through complex academic books and retain the knowledge with little effort, which he does when he's not off drinking and picking fights with his vulgar South Boston buddies (Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser) and drawing the police's attention with his shenanigans. It's those run-ins with the law that land him under the mandatory supervision of a mathematics professor, Gerald Lambeau (an excellent Stellan Skarsgård), who discovered Will's academic talent after catching him solving a complex theorem on one of the school's blackboards. Getting Will to do math in place of serving jail time isn't an issue; however, the other stipulation of his release, going to therapy, creates a problem. He clearly harbors a few issues -- aggression, attachment problems, and why he doesn't employ his gift -- but he doesn't want help. He'd rather run circles around those that try, proving he doesn't need to be "fixed".
Gus Van Sant's direction in Good Will Hunting marks a significant shift in style towards the conventional, moving from the acerbic and subversive jabs of To Die For and Drugstore Cowboy into a bald-faced, evocative portrait of a troubled youth. Yet, his thumbprint can be seen under the surface of nearly every scene; he evokes intellect in revealing close-ups, the organic rhythm of conversations, and the soul-bearing angst Will expresses, anchoring the tone to intimacy. Van Sant does so while maintaining a keen eye on the character in Boston's quaint charms, realizing the environmental pertinence behind scenes at college bars and dog tracks as ways of encapsulating Will's growth. The town where he lives is nearly as conflicted and varied a character as he is, and Van Sant's urbane aesthetic, coupled with Jean-Yves Escoffier photography, emphasizes a mixture of bristle and comfort-zone reluctance.
That question -- "Why is Will afraid of his own potential, both as a genius and as a normal human being?" -- cements the introspective foundation under Good Will Hunting, and Damon and Affleck's script explores his issues through experiences that confront Will's cynical viewpoint. He meets a disarming, intellectual medical student, Skyler (Minnie Driver), while at a college bar; his confidence and intellect get him in the front door, yet his emotional infancy and troubled past create a wall one it gets serious. Will interacts with contemporaries while under the observation of Dr. Lambeau that challenge his mental prowess, yet his arrogance and petulant demeanor creates more rifts than connections. I'm not sure whether it's Damon's natural behavior or his instinctive performance that wins out here, but the virtue in Will Hunting's gaze adds an undercurrent of expressive vigor to each of these scenarios, leaving one wondering what the fear that burdens him really looks like.
Answers to those questions -- at least, the ones we're going to get -- rest in the relationship Will develops with his therapist, Sean, the one he finally lands on after giving the rest the psychosomatic runaround. Robin Williams plays Sean, a weathered contemporary of Dr. Lambeau's who, with his Boston background and his years of struggling with his wife's illness, provides a counterpart to Will's demeanor when it's most desperately needed. Williams isn't a stranger to straight-faced dramatic roles, of course, but Sean's deep well of haunted emotion provides a fascinating vessel for the actor to mix stoicism and shackled, windswept intensity. The film's most powerful moments take place in the walls of Sean's office: a conversation about the symbolism in a painting of a seafaring man in a storm, another about idiosyncratic failings of the opposite sex, and one about missed opportunities and the World Series.
Damon and Affleck's script reveals unexpected maturity from their first undertaking, especially with how it's built around the relationship between Will and Sean, nourishing the idea of Will's complex mind while maintaining the contrast between intelligence and experience, between raw data and an emotional connection. Some might be quick to dismiss the bond between them as the easy key to unlocking Will's growth, the one psychiatrist that can right the wrongdoer's path, but there's a finer layer of poignant depth at work here. Cumulative growth between two kindred personalities lends credence to a shift in the young genius's demeanor, and it's only because of their shared experiences that it takes place. Versatile dialogue achieves that; in combination with a few instances of substantial ad-libbing and on-the-fly restructuring of conversations to heighten contextual impact, the writing gets its hands dirty with abuse and abandonment, the value of loyalty above intellect, and how romantic relationships often cut through facades like a serrated knife.
While the path Good Will Hunting travels down might be viewable from a distance out, hitting emotional peaks and valleys that revolve around Will's conflicted personality, the authentic spirit generated by those involved fills in the gaps to create a distinct, vivid glimpse at intriguing subject matter. Some truly smart material buzzes underneath the vulgar loops of Southie banter, romantic exchanges, and Will's psychological pokes'-n-prods; it's convincing on the surface as a drama, spurred forward by wit and charisma, but it can also give the audience pause in thinking about the negatives of Will's gift and, in the process, legitimizing his reservation. Will's complexity as a damaged orphan and closeted genius provides the vehicle for its momentum, but the real point of the story lies in the choices one can make -- which plays brilliantly into the story's cathartic conclusion, one where a kid who's told to go in this direction and that direction finally picks his own road to travel down.
No, you're not experiencing deja vu: Lionsgate have already released Good Will Hunting on Blu-ray, in a standard release last year (click here for a review from DVDTalk's Jason Bailey). Therefore, it seems a bit odd to see yet another release -- touted as a 15th Anniversary Edition -- this soon after the initial offering. At least you'll be able to easily distinguish the two, as this new edition comes with white and blue, thrown-together Photoshop artwork, with a cardboard slipcover that copies the front and back designs. Even the disc menus are exactly the same, only with a few additions in the special features department (more on that later), and, furthermore, the disc even uses the same "Resume Film" time stamp if you stopped mid-screening. Don't worry, though, because Lionsgate does, eventually, justify the upgrade.
Video and Audio:
Brace yourselves, as I know this will come as a shock: this 15th Anniversary Blu-ray of Good Will Hunting looks and sounds identical to that of the Blu-ray released last year around the same time. The 1.85:1-framed AVC treatment is quite good; balanced but rich focus on skin tones and reserved palette usage, a natural grasp on film presentation and depth of field, and nimble contrast balance overcome any issues one might have with occasional print damage and meager detail expression due to the production's budget. The DTS-HD Master Audio track picks up the slack there, as the presentation of rapid, thick dialogue and Danny Elfman's vibrant score appear more than a few steps above what's expected. The visual presentation could use a bit more polish, but overall it's a highly pleasing Blu-ray treatment -- no matter which variation from Lionsgate you end up getting.
Lionsgate have also carried over all the special features from the previous Blu-ray release, which contains a wealth of familiar supplements to those familiar with Good Will Hunting on DVD: the insightful Audio Commentary with Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck; the Deleted Scenes (20:38, SD) with optional commentary; the Production Featurette (6:38, SD) and Behind-the-Scenes(3:36, SD) footage; the Academy Award Best Picture Montage (:44, SD), the "Miss Misery" Music Video (3:17, SD) and the Theatrical Trailer (2:31, 4x3 SD). On top of that, Lionsgate have also located a decent but inessential Matt Damon Remembers Good Will Hunting (16:46, HD) featurette, which mixes behind the scenes footage with interview material for a slick, candid, semi-brief presentation of Damon's insight on the film and some really great shots of Van Sant on-set. All together, that material offers a strong-enough supplemental portrait to compliment an after-screening experience, yet there's an ace up this anniversary edition's sleeve:
Reflecting on a Journey: Good Will Hunting 15 Years Later (1:02:14, HD):
Very few clips, very few transitions, and next to no music. Essentially, we've got an hour's worth of raw interviews with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (together!), Robin Williams, Kevin Smith, and Gus Van Sand and Chris Moore, who touch on a wealth of topics that'll really interest fans of the film. Will you learn anything beyond what's already available in the commentary and through Wikipedia? Eh, not really, but hearing the dialogue straight from the guys involved makes this retrospective more than worth the time, and the tidbits they do offer fill in a few cracks that textual info can't cover.
Damon and Affleck rather candidly discuss their experience with Castle Rock Entertainment, the changes their script underwent during the "refinement" process, and how certain directors -- namely Mel Gibson and Michael Mann -- rubbed elbows with the production. Kevin Smith, always a great storyteller, offers his experience in reading the script and getting it in Miramax's hands, while a down-key Robin Williams elaborates on how his niece informed him of the film and how he ad-libbed and aided in the structure of a few important scenes.
The first two-thirds or so transforms into a great "story" of the film's conception, while the latter-third enthusiastically covers the cast, crew, and reception of the film in a fairly standard fashion. Damon, Affleck, Van Sant and Moore treat us to stories about casting Skyler and Minnie Driver's accent, as well as about Casey Affleck's relationship with college and how he factored into Van San't connection with the film. And, once the piece cascades into the close, Smith offers a quirky story about Damon and Affleck's acceptance speech at the Oscars. The piece is separated into four segments: The Era of Good Will Hunting (14:27); Cast and Crew Spotlight (34:15); Academy Awards: A Winning Season (4:42); and Life Goes On (8:49).
A lot of things have changed since '97, from the perception of knowledge and higher education to perception of youth. However, the themes and ideas in Good Will Hunting still remain relevant, primarily because they pivot on the broad-stroked dramatic focus on making choices and confronting the demons of one's past. That's where Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's script hits a lot of strong, poignant notes; filtered through Gus Van Sant's nimble direction, this depiction of a genius, Will, who willingly ignores his gift as a defense mechanism sustains its effectiveness with disarming honesty and charm, then telegraphs hard dramatic punches exactly where and when they need to be dealt. Authentic emotion arises from exquisite performances as they navigate around a somewhat formula-bound exploration of a troubled kid, all bottled in characters with earnest motivations and perspectives that heighten Will's growth. It's still a great movie -- sharply written, intimately photographed, and cathartic in an uninsulting manner once the credits roll.
Those who haven't bought Good Will Hunting in the high-definition format should undoubtedly snap this new 15th Anniversary Edition up, as it's a significant advancement from the previous DVD versions and a robust HD presentation in itself. For the others, it really boils down to this, though: how much is a strong hour-long retrospective (and a seventeen-minute behind-the-scenes piece) worth? Honestly, I'd say the honest, fairly comprehensive material Damon, Affleck, Van Sant and the others cover is worth whatever out-of-pocket change you'd spend in getting rid of the old disc and snapping this one up. Highly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site