The person I’m mourning is, of course, the great Robin Williams. Much has been written about him over the past couple of weeks, and I’m not intending to add to that, except to say that he was a supremely talented man who brought me a lot of joy and will continue to do so as I revisit his work.
I hadn’t seen Good Will Hunting since its theatrical release seventeen years ago, back when I was young and naïve and entirely deserving of the condemnation Sean (Williams) serves Will (Matt Damon) in the park bench scene. Given that, and the fact that it was the film for which he won an Oscar, watching and reviewing it seemed like a fitting tribute.
This is a thoughtful and moving film, probably my favourite of the Gus Van Sant films I’ve seen (though ask me another day and I might choose Milk instead). It’s not short and it sags a little in the second half, especially in scenes without Williams or Minnie Driver. However, the ending is solid and there are some very nice emotional beats along the way.
Williams’ performance is excellent, showing restraint, warmth, pathos, depth and nuance. He truly is the heart of the film (and I was surprised, upon revisiting it, that he doesn’t appear until the 33 minute mark). As for his co-stars, Damon is fine in the lead role; Driver gives the best performance I’ve seen from her; Stellan Skarsgård is memorable if unsubtle; and Ben Affleck is a noticeably weak link.
In fact, Affleck’s character seems entirely superfluous. I recognise the narrative and thematic purpose of Will’s group of friends (or “retarded gorillas”, as they’re labelled at one point), but really, there’s no reason at all for their ringleader to be played by Affleck. He brings nothing to the role beyond a retrospective “hey look, it’s Ben Affleck!”, and the sense that he only got it because he co-wrote the script with Damon. At least his brother Casey is interesting to watch as another of the gorillas (though that may be more to do with my appreciation for Casey’s later work), especially knowing that he apparently improvised quite a few of his lines.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the script, which scored Damon and Affleck Oscars. As far as entries into Hollywood go, their’s was pretty remarkable, moreso when considering the heights they would both go on to reach.
Van Sant’s direction is relatively straightforward, letting the actors do their work and thankfully avoiding stylistic flourishes that might have distracted from or undercut the story. Even when the film loses steam, there’s enough momentum to carry through to the end. Somehow, despite the fake-sounding Boston accents and the familiar nature of many of the key moments and conflicts, it never quite tips over into cliché-ridden or saccharine tosh. Elements such as the liberal sprinkling of Smith tunes – which fit well with the mood of the piece and add an air of melancholy and maturity – are especially helpful in this regard.
Reading this review, my score of 7.5 might seem a touch low, given all the praise. It’s not a perfect film; in fact, I’d hesitate to even call it great. However, it’s iconic, has much to like, and serves as a wonderful showcase for Williams’ non-comedic acting chops. For those reasons, I can wholeheartedly recommend it, especially for fans of Williams or anyone who either hasn’t seen it or hasn’t seen it since its original release.