Gus Van Sant directs Matt Damon, Robin Williams and Ben Affleck in this Oscar winning drama about a working class orphan who cleans the floors at Harvard, and proves to be an advanced mathematics genius.
One of the finest non-genre movies ever made. Working class protagonist, and very much a closer representation of what its like to be on the cusp of adulthood as a young man than any other film has achieved. To wit, I cannot think of many that attempt it. The drinking, the driving around, the fights, the banter. That’s just a small part of the overall story but the sequences with Damon, Affleck, Casey his brother and Cole Hauser ring so true to me. Pubs used to close bang on 11 in West London. So me and my first real group of boozing buddies used to drive over to the local multiplex and keep drinking, stay out at whatever the midnight movie was showing. Boogie Nights, There’s Something About Mary, this. This… many times. Surprisingly There’s Something About Mary was the only one we got into a fight during.
Ben and Matt, then relative unknowns, childhood pals, wrote a script by ping pong-ing email drafts to each other from hotel rooms while on-location in indie features and sixth billed roles in forgotten studio product. The script became feted around Hollywood, passed across between Michael Mann (he wanted to make them car thieves), William Goldman (he advised them to drop a conspiracy thriller subplot, they listened), Kevin Smith and that dreaded Harvey Weinstein. Thanks to the beast they got to star in it, not that unusual, but this made them overnight A-Listers and perhaps the least likely Oscar Winners of their decade. Yet their movie is a modernist fairytale, any actors’ dream, romantic yet authentic, intelligent yet droll. It contains a forlorn yet magical score by Danny Elfman plus showcases some beautiful, mournful cuts from indie singer song-writer Elliot Smith. It is a glossy, flawless piece of cinema that retains an indie vibe and a wounding sense of reality. Probably closest in strange variety and overlooked prestige to The Shawshank Redemption… it is a work of art that somehow encompasses all the many flavours of big screen emotion without ever feeling like a discombobulated mish-mash of themes.
You could point to this craftsman or that technician to diagnose the how and why of Good Will Hunting’s qualities. Yet I suspect the script the boys slaved over was the golden ticket. It attracted talent. Top billed Robin Williams gives his finest performance. Better even than the genie in Aladdin. Pretty much everyone is given room to stun, breathe, stand-out. No character is without their moment of humanity or foible. There’s three iconic scenes. A preppy douche gets his ass handed to him when Will recites his course bibliography at him in a bar. A chat on a bench that is devastating. And, of course, “It is not your fault, Will.” All the beats in between the highlights have a literary energy, the kinda moments lesser movies would kill for.
There’s a constant unspoken homoeroticism to the movie. Obviously, Gus Van Sant was one of Hollywood first openly gay directors. This could be seen as gun-for-hire work. And maybe knowing his usually more transgressive cinema well means you look for clues of an auteurist vision a little too hard. But it is definitely there. There in a playground fight that lingers on the flexed muscles of young men. There in the sad, unspoken backstory of Robin Williams bereaved psychiatrist and Stellan Skarsgård’s pushy professor. Van Sant brings a masculine intimacy to the melodrama. Intimacy rather than maths, class, genius or trauma proves the ultimate theme. Will doesn’t just use his supernatural intelligence to improve his life. He is too self destructive for that. He uses it as a shield, a battering ram to protect him from growing to close to anyone. After a childhood of abuse and toughening up, it isn’t just the lofty academic world of M. I.T. he proves a fish-out-of-water in. It is everything. Relationships, romance, therapy. Good Will Hunting on the surface is the tale of the smartest kid in the room being the unlikeliest. But really its is about a violent young man, learning to open up to humans who might hurt him but won’t, and living a life less risk averse.
Perfect Double Bill: Dead Poets Society (1989)
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