Iconoclastic director Gus Van Sant's public comments on Good Will Hunting are as oddly oblique as the film itself.
He has described this project as giving him the opportunity to make, at last, "a drama". But haven't all his previous movies, from Mala Noche (1985) to To Die For (1995) been, in one way or another, dramas? Dramas to do with everything that is perverse, maladaptive, anti-social and even inhuman in people's behaviour?
Van Sant is of course talking in code: what he really means is that his new film is, on the surface at least, a completely conventional, predictable, feel-good property. What exactly drew him to this project – beyond a desire for greater mainstream acceptance and success – is hard to pinpoint. But, once attached, he obviously applied himself to the task in two ways: by crafting the finest piece of normal entertainment he possibly could; and by insinuating all kinds of cheeky, subversive touches between the written lines.
Shine (1996), As Good As It Gets (1997) and Good Will Hunting helped shape a new cultural trend in popular cinema: tales of painfully dysfunctional guys – preferably of the unsung genius kind – who struggle against their own blocks and inadequacies in order to finally win recognition and love. Like some ancient fairy tale, this perfect feel-good narrative model is replete with benevolent donor figures – friends and lovers, teachers and therapists, welfare workers and kindly old folk.
Will (Matt Damon) is our brilliant but disturbed young hero. Early experiences of domestic abuse have left him with a hardened wall of defence mechanisms that no one can penetrate. So, rather than flaunt his genius (particularly in the maths area), Will prefers to stay humbly and anonymously among the little people of the working class – especially his mates, led by Chuckie (Ben Affleck).
The ambitious Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) tweaks to Will's special gift – but keeping the boy out of jail and integrating him into any kind of establishment proves to be a daunting task. Perhaps only Sean (Robin Williams), a therapist with the common touch and a few demons of his own, can get through to Will and help him develop.
There are so many details, vignettes and touches in this film which are hugely enjoyable and superbly handled by Van Sant. Some of the best laughs – and this is what gives the movie its odd tone – seem to chafe against the central, sentimental thrust of the story. The recurring spectacle of Will subverting (through his intellect) the patronising efforts of an army of shrinks, or standing up for the sometimes brutish values of his lower class, have a surprising force and candour.
Maybe it is these more resistant, recalcitrant aspects of the material that Van Sant truly identifies with and warms to. When he hits the more traditionally cozy stuff – such as the talky scenes dramatizing Sean's growing bond with Will – the inventiveness drains away. Nonetheless, the high emotional points of the drama – especially in Will's difficult relationship with Skylar (Minnie Driver) – register as effective tearjerkers.
Van Sant's movies are usually busy, multi-layered, felicitous constructions, and Good Will Hunting is no exception. The avant-garde side of his style is kept reasonably subdued here – bursting out only in occasional bursts of free-associative editing, a hovering, atonal musical accompaniment and a final, mind-boggling dedication to Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.
More marked, this time around, is Van Sant's ability to draw unusual, intense performances from a diverse assortment of players. Among the main cast, Damon and Affleck (who co-wrote the script) make a deep impression; while celebrities George Plimpton and Francesco Clemente put in brief but wonderful cameos. The only weak spot in this ensemble is Williams – a normally excessive, exhibitionistic actor who here seems to be under sedation.
© Adrian Martin March 1998