Sunday, November 6, 2016
Good Will Hunting
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
This 1997 film, which won Oscars for its screenplay (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck), and for Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams), poses several questions: What is success and what is failure?; Can one overcome the suffering experienced in life, and move forward?; What constitutes an intimate relationship?; How do we get to really know one another instead of relying on superficial assumptions? Why is experiencing the world necessary as opposed to thinking you can understand it by being detached? Pretty large issues to tackle in a two-hour movie. But, by focusing on a limited number of personal interactions, this story addresses these topics.
The primary way the film takes on these issues is by focusing on one complex individual and those few persons surrounding him. The title of the movie is, obviously, a play on words. Will Hunting (Damon) is the main character, but is he “good,” or at least can he find the good inside of him and what’s good for him? Is he capable of hunting for the “good will” he may achieve? I know, more questions. Over the opening credits, there are multiple simultaneous reduced shots of Will, which look like facets of a diamond, as if to imply he is as precious as a rare gem. It also suggests that there are many aspects of his personality, and resulting possibilities that can occur in his life. We soon find out why he is a man of many parts. He works as a janitor, a necessary job, but one which many people can perform. However, he cleans floors in the mathematics building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the top tech university in the United States, and is able to solve (when no one is looking), amazingly complex proofs Professor Gerald (Gerry) Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) posts on the board in the hallway.
The blue-collar life he enjoys, but also in which he hides out, consists of best friend Chuckie (Affleck), along with Morgan (Casey Affleck), and Billy (Cole Hauser). The film plays into our prejudices, because we first assume that these fellows, chasing after girls and drinking at bars is wasteful, unaccomplished activity. But, Will’s genius aside, they engage in smart, witty banter. And, they are good friends. As psychologist Sean Maguire (Williams) later says to his ex-college roommate, Gerry, who calls Will’s pals “retarded gorillas,” any one of them “would, if he asked them to, would take a fucking bat to your head, okay? It’s called loyalty.” For Will, the safety he feels among his friends, in the tough neighborhood of South Boston, known as Southie, is important because, as we later learn, he was an orphan who was brutalized by his foster father.
But, Will carries a great deal of anger because of his past. He attacks a young man in a schoolyard, an appropriate place since the bully beat him up as a child. When the police come to break up the brawl, Will’s anger is uncontrolled and spills over to others, and he hits a cop. He defends himself in court, quite articulately since he has read so many law books, along with volumes of others at lightning speed in many areas. The judge reads a list of prior offenses, including theft, mayhem, and assault, attesting to how his wounded rage threatens and subverts his Southie life. In the past, he argued his way out of prison, but the judge says he hit a policeman, and sentences him to jail time.
Gerry saw Will writing on the hallway blackboard, wrongly concludes through preconceived beliefs that he is scrawling graffiti, but realizes that the young man is the math genius who solves proofs who had not revealed himself. He goes to the university custodial office to find out Will’s identity. There, we see some prejudicial social antagonism. Gerry comes off a bit stuffy saying he was looking for someone who worked in “my building,” as if it belonged to him. The workers, demonstrating some class hostility, ask which is “your building,” and give themselves the title of “Dr.” to show contempt for the designation. (Contrasting sequential scenes showing Gerry at a snooty intellectual gathering and the youths playing and watching baseball also emphasize class distinctions). Gerry is able to work a deal with the judge so that he can have Will work on math problems, but he also has to see a therapist. Will dismisses the therapy part, but must play along to keep out of jail. His way of not dealing with his problems, or anybody who tries to penetrate his emotional defenses, is to go on the offensive. The first psychologist (played by writer George Plimpton) is a stuffy academic type, an obvious target for the smart but working class Will, who undermines the therapist by insinuating he is a covert homosexual with designs on the patient. The second tries hypnosis, which seems ludicrous to the brainy, strong-willed Will, who breaks into the song, “Afternoon Delight,” supposedly under a trance. In these scenes, we witness Will’s rebelliousness against any authority that tries to force him into what he considers a submissive state, a situation he associates with his foster father.
Out of desperation, Gerry approaches Sean because he also grew up in Southie. Sean appears to be aiming lower in his professional life than his intellect would warrant as he taches psychotherapy to bored community college students. His relationship with Gerry is an echo of Will’s situation, in that the former practicing therapist is caught between a life for which he has settled and one which challenges and can possibly satisfy him more. There is an emotional reason why Sean has withdrawn to a degree from his former life. He lost his wife, who he saw as his soul mate, to cancer. But, the film, through Sean, questions what is success. Gerry later says that Will has an incredible talent, and he doesn’t want Sean to let the young man think that it is okay to fail. But that failure is measured by Gerry’s rat race of a life where he feels he must constantly show he is the best in his field. Sean says to him “That’s why I don’t come to the goddamned reunions, ‘cause I can’t stand that look in your eye. Ya know, that condescending, embarrassed look. You think I’m a failure. I know who I am, and I’m proud of what I do. It was a conscious choice. I didn’t fuck up. And you and your cronies think I’m some sort of pity case.” In one scene he points out that just because somebody is famous in his field, it doesn’t guarantee that he is a successful human being. He brings up Ted Kaczynski, who did “brilliant work in mathematics. Specifically bounded harmonic functions.” The man turned into the Unabomber.
Because Will feels that everyone except his best friends are out to attack him, his default mode is to attack. When he meets Sean, he pseudo-analyzes him by concluding that a painting done by Sean shows he married the wrong woman. Sean shows his insecurity and makes the matter worse by also being hostile, and threatens to “end” the youth if he “disrespects” his wife again. Sean, however, agrees to meet Will for another session, after a period of contemplation. The speech he gives to Will in the park shows a wisdom in a script far beyond Damon and Affleck’s age at the time. It illustrates the inadequacy of book learning divorced from experience, and argues for the complexity of humans that we must work to understand, instead of summing them up in a superficial pigeon hole. He says Will can quote Shakespeare on the topic of war, but has not been in one, and doesn’t know what it’s like to have your friend “gasp his last breath looking to you for help.” He may quote a sonnet about love, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to care for someone so much, that it meant being there for her forever, “through anything. Through cancer.” He never experienced “sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors can see in your eyes that the terms ‘visiting hours’ don’t apply to you.” He drives home how disrespectful it is to superficially judge another when he says to Will, “you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine.” That would be as erroneous as Sean saying he understood Will’s life as an orphan because he had read Oliver Twist. Sean correctly tells Will that he can’t understand him from a book, but Will doesn’t want to talk about who he is, because he is “terrified” of what he might say.
The therapy does progress, as Sean presents a model of a healthy, intimate relationship when talking about his life with his wife. He says that he didn’t go to an important Boston Red Sox game because, as he told his friends, “I gotta go see about a girl.” Will met a girl, Skylar (someone Will should reach for, like the “sky?”), who is down-to-earth despite the fact that she inherited money to attend Harvard, and plans on going soon to California to study medicine at Stanford. They get along well, and joke a lot. For example, they share a first kiss while eating burgers, and Skylar makes a sexual innuendo by saying, “I think I may have gotten some of your pickle.” But, Will is not used to trusting others, always expecting something bad will happen to spoil things. He tells Sean why should he continue to see Skylar because she is smart and beautiful and perfect now, before he gets to know her; but, what if he sees her more, and she becomes a disappointment to him, and vice versa. Sean says that neither of them is perfect, but the real “question is whether or not you are perfect for each other?” Sean argues that Will needs a soul mate, that he can’t have a dialogue with the dead people who wrote great books. He needs to have intimacy and that won’t happen if he’s “always afraid to take the first step because all you see is every negative thing ten miles down the road.” He tells the youth that his current philosophy means “that way you can go through your entire life without ever having to really know anybody. (But, Will throws those words back at Sean when the latter won’t discuss getting remarried because his wife is dead. He is trying to get the therapist to practice what he preaches).
Even though Skylar gets along well with Will’s friends, he can’t get over a feeling of insecurity, which ignites anger at the idea that his upbringing doesn’t make him good enough to be with her. He shields his orphan past by saying he has twelve brothers, and refuses to bring Skylar to his seedy home. When Skylar asks him to come to go to California with her, the fear of abandonment is too much a threat to Will, and he provokes an argument with Skylar. He says she will eventually marry a rich guy and tell the other trust fund girls how she went slumming once with him. Skylar questions his fixation on money, and shows how he has, again, not taken the time to dig below the surface to understand her. She reveals that she lost her father at age thirteen, and wishes she could give up any inheritance just to be with her dad for one more day. She tells him that she is just as afraid as he is that it might not work out between them, but she is willing to give it a chance. She criticizes him about not being honest about his past. He then hysterically tells her that she doesn’t want to know the truth about how his foster father put out cigarettes on his skin, and stabbed him with a knife. She cries hearing these facts, and says she wants to help him, which he twists into feeling pity for him. His shame is too great and tells her he doesn’t love her.
Will’s rebelliousness carries over to how he deals with the possible job offers that Gerry lines up for him. He has his friend Chuckie pretend to be him at an interview in a scene that satirizes how the lower-class Southie boy can get the corporate heads to pull two hundred dollars out of their pockets in order to retain the man they believe will use his brains to get them more wealth. Another example of how the film questions preconceived notions of success occurs in the interview at the NSA. The agency’s representative boasts how the outfit is the best at breaking codes, and says to Will why wouldn’t someone want to work for the NSA. Will’s great satirical speech shows the extent of collateral damage that occurs when greedy interests intervene under the guise of protecting the safety of the country. He says suppose he breaks a code and a village gets bombed killing “fifteen hundred people I never met, never had a problem with.” The politicians, who avoided combat in the past by joining the National Guard, send poor young guys to fight their war, and maybe one of them is his friend and he takes some “shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put shrapnel in his ass got his old job, ‘cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks.” The war doesn’t lower gasoline prices, but instead the oil companies raise the cost of the fuel and his buddy can’t afford to drive to a job interview. Oil tankers spring leaks, killing sea life in the North Atlantic. So, Will says why not cut to the chase, and “shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe, and join the National Guard. I could be elected president.” So, he says, he’ll hold out for something better.
In a confrontation with Gerry, Will urges the professor not to push Will into Gerry’s version of accomplishment. He tells him there is a difference between providing direction and manipulating him. He says that Will as a child was damaged by the very people that were supposed to protect him, so he pushes others away as an adult before they will hurt him. In a session with Sean, Will argues there is honor in being a bricklayer and in being a janitor. Sean does not disagree, but wants Will to confront what he wants. He could have been a janitor anywhere, but he chose MIT, and secretly hides his true ambitions by solving mathematical problems, and then lies about not having done it. When Sean asks him what he wants out of life, the usually quick-answering Will has nothing to say. At a construction site where Will works with his friend, he tells Chuckie that he isn’t going to take any of the jobs offered because his plan is to stay where he is for the rest of his life and they’ll have kids who will play with each other. Chuckie says Will is his best friend, but if in twenty years, “You’re still livin’ here, comin’ over to my house, watchin’ the Patriots games, workin’ construction, I’ll fuckin’ kill ya.” When Will says that he doesn’t want to hear again about how he owes it to himself to get out, Chuckie counters with, “you owe it to me. Cuz tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be 50, and I’ll still be doin’ this shit. And that’s all right. That’s fine. I mean you’re sittin’ on a winnin’ lottery ticket. And you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in. And that’s bullshit.” He tells Will that hanging around there is a “waste of your time.” Chuckie basically is telling Will that he isn’t being genuine when he says he doesn’t want something different in his life based on his talents. (It is interesting that Sean keeps buying lottery tickets because he has hope that winning will get him what he wants, despite the odds that the practical Gerry points out to him, but Will already has the winning ticket, but has to realize what his hopes are.)
In one of their last sessions, Will is able to confront his past abuse as he realizes that Sean also experienced beatings at the hands of his alcoholic father. The therapist finally gets Will to understand that he did not do anything wrong to warrant such torture, and tells him, “It’s not your fault.” He eventually tells Sean that he is taking one of the jobs Gerry set up, and feels that it is what he wants. Sean also learns from the experience with Will what he needs, and will be traveling, interacting with the world again, and maybe doing some writing. Will’s friends give him a beat up old car for his twenty-first birthday, which signifies that he is ready to move on. But, he tells Sean in a note that the job has to wait, because what he really is passionate about is Skylar, and he is going to California to “go see about a girl.”
The movie suggests that the key to dealing with the questions raised above relies on overcoming fears about what we may find when seeking what makes us who we are, what we want, and what is the true nature of others.
The next film is Saboteur.