Review of Good Will Hunting, Directed by Gus Van Sant
By PAUL D. MILLER
Will Hunting is preternaturally brilliant, but has a troubled soul. His friends–Chucky, Morgan, and Billy, from Boston’s rough South Side–work menial jobs and pass the time drinking and cursing. Will, while working as a janitor at MIT, stumbles across an impossible math challenge by a legendary professor and he solves it without hesitation. The professor hunts him down to become his mathematical mentor but finds Will needs mentoring of a different sort. He introduces Will (played by Jason Bourne) to a counselor named Sean (played with mature depth by Aladdin’s Genie) in order to help Will overcome his inner demons.
Good Will Hunting (1997) is a classic of recent American cinema. I don’t know if this is really the 154th best film of all time, as IMDB.com has it, but it has more sensitivity and insight than most movies. On the surface, it’s about a guy from the wrong side of the tracks trying to cope with the fact that he is smarter than Einstein. But that’s not really what the movie is about. The fact that Will is a born genius simply sharpens his defense mechanisms: he out-analyzes his counselors, plays games with their silly psychological concepts, and exposes their fears and insecurities before they can begin to question him. And it helps him impress Skylar, the cute girl at the bar who becomes his love interest. But you could have the same plot without the conceit of Will’s genius.
Rather, the movie is about how to be a friend, how to form relationships, and how to embrace commitment. The central relationship in the movie is between Will and Sean—Matt Damon and Robin Williams establish a believable rapport together that makes the relationship work. The two appear to make an unlikely pair: the first rough, young, brilliant but uneducated; the second old, grizzled, professorial and full of books. Their first meeting goes poorly. Will tries the same trick on Sean that he pulls on the other counselors, quickly finding something personally insulting to say to keep Sean off-balance and demonstrate his own intellectual superiority. Sean almost falls for the trap, but then (unlike the other counselors) invites Will back for another session. From this point their friendship slowly blossoms.
This is where the movie strikes pure gold. Sean’s commitment to and patience with Will is a beautiful picture of friendship. I was initially skeptical of the movie because, like every piece of fiction (especially one dealing with deeply psychological issues but no Christian reference), I thought it would reflect a shallow view of human nature and a naive view of how people change. But it turns out the movie shows as good a picture as you can get in a secular film of the Biblical view of how friendships help people change.
I have in mind here Paul David Tripp’s model in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, which you should read. Tripp outlines a model of biblical counseling in which we (in the role of a counselor) should love those whom we seek to help, know them well, speak hard truths to them, and stay involved in their lives: love, know, speak, and do. This is exactly what Will’s first counselors fail to do. They treat Will like a problem to be solved, not as a person to be known and loved.
Sean treats Will like a human. He takes time to ask questions and get to know him, and the film rests on Robin Williams’ convincing portrayal of Sean as a wise, caring, but human counselor. Eventually they find common ground. They’re both from the South Side and both victims of child abuse. Their common ground helps Will trust Sean, which then gives Sean the relationship capital to speak truths that Will had never allowed himself to hear before. Also true to life is that Sean’s own issues eventually become mixed up with his friendship with Will.
The movie has other virtues. We get another picture of faithful friendship in Chuckie (played by Ben Affleck). Chuckie lives a menial life, though the film avoids either sentimentalizing or exploiting his poverty and provincialism. The screenplay has some genuine sensitivity and deserves the Oscar it won (although it didn’t need to be so completely suffused with profanity). Robin Williams, who won the film’s other Oscar, shows he’s as good a dramatic actor as a comedian.
The movie stumbles slightly during the climactic scene because the truth Sean speaks is simply that Will isn’t at fault for the child abuse he suffered. That’s true–and Matt Damon’s portrayal of Will’s response is heartbreaking. But we are all responsible for how we choose to respond to our hard circumstances. The movie might have taken just one step further and allowed Will to realize how he had used his past trauma as an excuse for treating others badly, for pushing Skylar away, and generally for being an arrogant jerk. Perhaps he does, but the filmmakers felt they didn’t need to make it explicit. I think they should have.