Tuesday 21 October 2014

Movie Review: Good Will Hunting (1997)

A drama about the value of intellect as a natural gift, Good Will Hunting is a dazzling achievement. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck announce their proper arrival into the movie industry with a witty script about a young man withholding his own potential behind a wall of acrid charisma.

In Boston, Will Hunting (Damon) lives on the wrong side of town, and is working as a janitor sweeping the floor at MIT. Will is an orphan and had a rough childhood, but he is also a cocky genius, supremely confident and a voracious reader, with a particular aptitude for solving complex math problems. To avoid any risk of disappointment, Will emotionally pushes everyone away and shuns any opportunity to improve his lot in life. He prefers instead to pick fights with hoodlums and hang out with his blue collar friends, particularly best buddy Chuckie (Affleck). Will's advanced mathematical skills come to the attention of renowned MIT Professor Gerry Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), just as Will lands in legal trouble for striking a police officer during a meaningless street brawl.

As a condition of avoiding serving time, Gerry agrees to take Will under his wing and make sure that he sees a therapist. Will and Lambeau work well together tackling math problems, but finding a therapist who can penetrate Will's hard exterior proves difficult. Eventually Gerry reaches out to his former college classmate Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a psychology professor himself struggling with the death of his wife. Will starts dating Harvard student Skylar (Minnie Driver), but opening up to her will prove to be as difficult as having meaningful conversations with Sean.

Co-written by Affleck and Damon and directed by Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting is an intellectual Cinderfella drama. While not exactly rags to riches, Will's journey is from the streets of South Boston to the hallowed halls of MIT, and more importantly, his awakening to the power of vulnerability and the potential for a better life. With a smart script and a spellbinding diamond-in-the-rough central character, the film captivates as it delves into the psyche and spirit of a charismatic genius looking for a cause.

Gerry and Sean represent two distinct father figures and two separate paths available to Will, should he choose to break out of his thick crust of mistrust. Gerry tries to appeal to Will's intellect and charts a course towards potential business success. At great personal cost, Sean batters away at Will's armour, trying to unleash a spirit with unlimited all-round potential. It's a fascinating two-pronged probe on a young man smarter than both his mentors. With Skylar presenting a tantalizing look at what is possible, deep down Will Hunting realizes that to make good, something has to change, and Sean may be his last chance to find out what an alternative future may look like.

The therapy sessions between doctor and unwilling patient held in Sean's cluttered office are at the heart of the film. Sean's own open wound due to his wife's death gives the film a third dimension, and Will an initial target to bore in on as he attempts to destroy Sean as quickly as all the other shrinks. But Sean recovers, regroups and patiently invests the time it takes to reach into the heart of a man who has decided that he never wants to be reached again. The climax of these sessions may be a bit more cinematic than convincing, but the process is a captivating study in progressive cerebral interaction between two determined men, and remarkably excellent filmmaking.

With an unforgettable performance, Matt Damon establishes his screen persona as a smart man with boyish looks and a wickedly playful streak. Robin Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role as Sean, giving the doctor plenty of complex humanity and a steely resolve to not give up on Will when it would have been easy to do so. The complex relationship between Sean and Gerry also helps to provide depth, Stellan Skarsgård doing his bit to create an appropriately arrogant but still genial celebrity professor.

While making good use of the attractive Boston locations, Van Sant keeps the mood buoyant, mixing drama with touches of humour and sprinklings of friendship and romance. Good Will Hunting is a most rewarding expedition.

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