The first collaboration of many between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon that is also one of their best works to date, 1997’s Good Will Hunting remains a defining film of its era for a reason. Sure, the duo have donned wigs to take part in medieval dramas or goofy shades for an upcoming retelling of a more recent true story. However, it is the more understated character study that launched their careers which sees them both acting and writing to outstanding results. Each scene, be in service of more comedic bits or deeper reflections on life, feels natural in a way that only grows on the longer you sit with them. It is one of those films that is able to completely capture the nuances of its slice of life story in a way that feels both specific and universal. Never sanding down the messy parts of its life, it makes you feel as though you have known its central characters as completely as if you had known them for your whole life.
Directed by Gus Van Sant, it centers on the titular Will Hunting (Damon) who spends his days either bumming around or getting into legal trouble in South Boston. Even as he has best friend from childhood Chuckie (Affleck) by his side, he doesn’t have much family and seems rather lost. The one thing that he seems most interested in is knowledge. Though he hasn’t completed much schooling, Will is actually a genius even as he mostly hides his gifts from others. This is something he expresses while working as a janitor at a university where he begins completing some of the rigorous problems on the chalkboard outside one of the classrooms. He does so without taking credit until he is discovered by Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) who then wants to take him in as a student. The agreement also requires that Will attends therapy which he initially mocks before meeting with Lambeau’s former roommate from college. Dr. Sean Maguire, played by the late Robin Williams with a grace and humor that is unparalleled, is then the one person that he begins opening up to after a long period of patience. It then becomes a frequently mirthful yet still melancholic meditation on ambition, happiness, loneliness, and the life that Will wants to lead for himself.
There is much that shines about the film, but the best moments come in the deeper conversations Will has with Sean. Central to this is how Williams is simply magnificent, hitting all the comedic and dramatic notes with ease. One never undercuts the other as they are instead in service of each other, building a portrait of a relationship between two men that still remains incisive all these decades later. Without ever being showy, the film peels back the layers of masculinity and the pain that it can bring until all that Will has been in his life is laid bare. When others are wanting to push him one way or the other, Sean is the one character who stands apart. The kindness felt in every facet of Williams’ performance is just mesmerizing to behold and ensures every scene crackles with a heartfelt energy. Even just a story about farting can become molded into a monologue about life and love that blows you away. Though every scene is overflowing with this energy, it is these series of scenes that remain the absolute standout. Williams is one of those titanic performers who just never misses a step and whose presence carries with it a resonance that will never be lost even as he is tragically no longer with us. He was truly one of the absolute best to ever do it.
At the same time, there are also some great scenes that the other characters all get throughout the film. Affleck shares one with Damon that is as spectacular as anything the two have ever done to date. Even when there was the humorous one in a bar that is uproarious in the best way, the more reserved conversation the two share towards the conclusion of the film is masterful. While their two characters take a break from working, they discuss their futures in a way that carries a crushing weight. Chuckie, as cutting as he was in the many comedic scenes, can speak just as much truth in this more serious one as well. The honesty in every word is conveyed with a measured and heartfelt pacing, leaving Will in a stunned silence. The unbroken monologue is then reincorporated later in Affleck’s final scene that hits like a truck even as it is sublime in its simplicity. Even as her character is not given as much depth as one would have liked, Minnie Driver as Skylar makes the most of every moment she gets. Her character can dish it as well as she takes it and makes her growing relationship with Will one that feels rich even as it could be fleeting. Every scene we get with these characters feels like we are peeking into their world and coming away changed by each one of them.
Underlying all of this is that this dynamic drama could have been lost in something far less engaging. Though many don’t know it, it was originally conceived of as a thriller where Will’s knowledge made him a target of government agencies. It was only at the advice of other filmmakers that it was smartly made into more of a grounded drama and emphasized the emotional elements that made it such an enduring work. When we arrive at its optimistic yet still honest closing, it feels completely earned as a result of this shift in focus. It still is humorous to imagine that we could have gotten a more generic work instead of the one we got, but that only makes it all the more precious to get to experience the film as a result. For all the work that both Affleck and Damon have become known for since, it is Good Will Hunting that provided the earliest sign of the greatness these two collaborators could create together.