Sometimes a movie becomes so ingrained in popular culture that everyone just automatically says it’s good. Even if you’ve never seen it, there’s an understanding that people hold it in high regard. Then, when you actually go to watch it, whether for the first time or as a rewatch, it just doesn’t live up to the expectations.
There’s nothing more disappointing than realizing you don’t like a “classic” movie. It’s almost like you feel left out of the conversation from then on. I was quite apprehensive that this would be the case after 25 years – and for the 7th time around – with Good Will Hunting. It’s got 97% on Rotten Tomatoes (as if I care), but it’s also 25 years old. Could people be looking at it through colored glasses?
Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about. It still holds up as a great movie, even many years after its original release. If there’s any complaint, it’s that it does have a pretty standard plot structure, but I think it’s elevated by strong writing and charismatic performances from the entire cast.
I love college-based movies, and this one takes place smack dab in the colleges of Massachusetts, in a way my backyard, too. If you’re looking for a well-done, feel-good movie just before autumn ends, Good Will Hunting is perfect – even the poster showcases the red and gold foliage of Boston.
But there’s more to it than just how it looks of course. Let’s get into the story!
Matt Damon plays twenty-year-old Will Hunting, who is a rough-and-tumble janitor at MIT. He likes to hang out with his friends, get drunk, and fight in the streets. He also happens to be a genius who suffered an abusive childhood and doesn’t trust many people. He draws the attention of a professor after he solves two incredibly difficult mathematical proofs on a public chalkboard.
After Will lands in jail after a street fight, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) gets his sentence dropped on two conditions: Will must work with him on mathematical equations and see a therapist once a week. The lessons go well, but Will scorns several therapists before Lambeau reaches out to an old college friend, Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams).
Due to Maguire’s tenacity and his honesty about his emotional struggles regarding the death of his wife, Will connects with him. Maguire discovers that Will is afraid of taking chances on people and himself due to his abuse in foster care as a child; he even pushes away a serious romantic relationship with a woman named Skylar (Minnie Driver) to avoid being hurt.
Maguire encourages Will to stop using the possible negative outcomes of opening up to people as an excuse to not do anything with his life. After many struggles, Will becomes more open to using his intellect to start a real career, but ultimately decides to pursue his earlier relationship and follow Skylar to California.
A simple, timeless script can still be impressive if it’s executed well, and that’s the case with Good Will Hunting. It’s one of those movies that is just solidly made, even if there aren’t many surprises in it. Remember the old bromide: sometimes it’s the journey rather than the destination! And I had a good time following the movie’s well-crafted trail.
I think having a good script creates a solid foundation upon which the rest of your movie can be built. Matt Damon wrote the first draft of Good Will Hunting for a class at Harvard. Then he recruited Ben Affleck to help him develop it further. Wow.
Although the script changed pretty significantly from when it was first written based on feedback the two got from other filmmakers, the script is still solidly the work of Damon and Affleck, and they paced it well. There aren’t many dull spots in the movie, and almost every moment feels necessary to building the characters and the world they live in.
The one exception is the scene in which Ben Affleck’s character goes to a job interview in place of Will. It’s meant to be light-hearted and funny, but it goes on just a little too long and doesn’t contribute anything to the story. It’s the one moment I thought was truly superfluous in the whole movie.
Will and his friends are otherwise fun to watch. They’re characters who are rough around the edges but decent people at heart, just like the well-educated Professor Lambeau is a little condescending but not really a bad person.
There’s a clear naturality to the dialogue between Will’s friends, presumably because Damon and Affleck both grew up in Massachusetts and were drawing from their own experiences.
Even outside of the casual banter between the friends, the dialogue still feels mostly real. Some of it is because Robin Williams was given freedom to ad-lib, which is almost always going to give great results. Even though he’s mostly remembered for his comedy, Williams is great at delivering dramatic monologues with the right level of believability.
Occasionally the monologues in this movie can get a little play-like, I’ll admit. But again, that’s not anything you wouldn’t expect from this kind of character-driven movie, and it is the characters (and their actors) that make them work anyway.
Speaking of the actors…
The combination of natural-sounding dialogue and the charm of the actors really sells the movie. You want to watch Matt Damon’s journey, even though it’s pretty clear where it’s headed, because his character and his performance are so charming. And clean.
Really, there’s not a bad performance in the whole bunch. Robin Williams once again proves that he can handle drama as well as he can comedy, and even Ben Affleck shows some great acting chops as Will’s best friend, Chuckie. Even when the lines sometimes feel a little forced, the actors deliver them with aplomb.
I also really appreciate that the director, Gus Van Sant, was smart enough to let Stellan Skarsgård and Minnie Driver use their natural accents instead of forcing them to be American. It can really drag down a performance if the actor is struggling to maintain an accent that’s not their own.
Luckily, both of them could use their own voices, and they both gave memorable performances. Driver was especially moving in her final moments on screen with Matt Damon. She’s a likeable character to begin with, thanks to the good script, but Minnie Driver’s devastation at the thought of losing Will is incredible.
Good Will Hunting is a great-looking movie, too. College settings always give me a warm, cozy feeling for some reason, and this one is no different. Even the crowded office at the community college where Robin William’s character works made me want to go back to school.
There’s also the fact that a lot of it was filmed on location in Boston. This gives it a realistic, lived-in look that I really appreciate.
The cinematography and editing aren’t especially flashy, but they don’t need to be. Instead, everything is just neatly done, again letting the craftsmanship carry the movie instead of being all style and no substance.
That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing special about the look of the film or how it was filmed. The juxtaposition of the clean and proper halls of MIT and the almost junkyard-like appearance of Will’s neighborhood is really effective.
The ending shot of the movie is really nice, too. Instead of ending with the actual reuniting of Skylar and Will, we just see Will’s car driving along a highway on its way to California. The screen doesn’t fade to black like most movies; instead, the credits begin rolling overtop of the view of the car.
It’s a smooth ending, not abrupt, one that lets you sit with what you just watched in a way I thought was really interesting. And satisfying.
Movies don’t have to be huge spectacles to be good. They don’t have to be overly artsy or obtuse either. Good Will Hunting strikes a near-perfect balance of craft and entertainment. It’s not pretentious in its attempt at meaning, but it’s not overly simplified.
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took a simple story structure and executed it to a T, which is an impressive beginning to their careers. Then it kept its polish by a no-nonsense approach to the mechanics of the film. The directing, the cinematography, the editing, are all on an even keel and expertly handled. And finally, it was further elevated by a terrific cast.
It’s not just the names of the cast that matter either; even great actors can have some real stinker performances. But I think every single person in this movie was giving their A-game, and it really helped sell the whole package.
It’s not necessarily a movie you need to watch over and over again. There are more exciting things to watch, in all likelihood, some more original stories to give a chance, sure. But I was pleasantly surprised at how low-key excellent Good Will Hunting still is.
In fact, I think it will probably still be great in another twenty-five years. A simple story told really well is sometimes all it takes to stand the test of time.
And it is like déjà vu, when parts of your own life resonate with a movie character. Will Hunting reminded me of me when I watched it 25 years ago and today it reminds me of Neil – a life come full circle?