Film / Good Will Hunting

"My boy's wicked smaht."

A 1997 drama film directed by Gus Van Sant, written by (and starring) Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Set in Boston, Massachusetts, the film tells the story of Will Hunting (Damon), a troubled Irish-Catholic young man who is gifted with extraordinary mathematical skills (as well as being a prodigy and an autodidact), but works in a menial janitorial job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Prone to violence and extremely loyal to his friends Chuckie (Affleck), Morgan (Casey Affleck) and Billy (Cole Hauser), Will has pushed away everyone else who's tried to get close to him because of his abusive past and introverted personality.

After solving a complex mathematical equation at the campus, Will is discovered by Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), a Fields Medal-winning mathematician who sees a lot of potential in Hunting, and sends him to psychiatrist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), while at the same time, Hunting strikes up a relationship with the beautiful Skylar (Minnie Driver), who is also confronting her own personal problems. Will must learn to overcome his deep fear of abandonment (with Maguire's help) in order to learn how to trust and love the people who care about him.

The film won two Academy Awards, Best Original Screenplay for Affleck and Damon and Best Supporting Actor for Williams. See also Finding Forrester, another Gus Van Sant film about the discovery (and self-discovery) of an intelligent young man.

This film contains examples of:

  • Almighty Janitor: A mathematical genius who works as a literal janitor.
  • Always Someone Better: Lambeau feels this way about Will. In an interesting variation, he agonizes over it not so much because he's jealous but more that he feels Will might just throw it all away.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Will admits to Skylar that he's been abused, and they get into an argument when Will believes she's only interested in him because she's trying to "save" him. Skylar tearfully pleads that she loves him, but Will walks out on her.
  • Appeal to Obscurity: Professor Lambeau actually does this to himself, trying to make the point that his interest in Will is not a selfish interest in becoming famous. He asks a nearby waiter if he's ever heard of various famous scientists (Salk, Einstein) and then asks if he's ever heard of Lambeau.

  • Armor-Piercing Question: "I just have a little question here. You could be a janitor anywhere. Why did you work at the most prestigious technical college in the whole fuckin' world? And why did you sneak around at night and finish other people's formulas that only one or two people in the world could do and then lie about it?"
    • The statement version of the trope: "It's not your fault."
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
    Gerald: Where will you go?
    Sean: India, China... and Baltimore.
  • Ascended Meme:
    Will: How do you like them apples?
  • Award Bait Song: Elliot Smith's "Miss Misery", which is played over the end credits.
  • Badass Beard: Maguire's beard.
  • Berserk Button: Disrespecting Maguire's wife is a lethally stupid mistake.
  • The Big Board: In Lambeau's classroom and the hallway at the college.
  • Birds of a Feather: Part of the reason why Lambeau wants Sean to be Will's psychiatrist is due to their similar backgrounds.
  • Book Dumb: More of a comparative example. Sean is a psychiatrist who teaches at a Community College which creates a considerable contrast with Lambeau. Despite not necessarily having the smarts of Lambeau or Will, he can pinpoint the issues with either of them very quickly.
  • Break Them by Talking: Will pulls several of these lectures off successfully. He also tries using one on Professor Lambeau, to avoid talking about his own feelings. Despite the words cutting Williams' character at first, the next time the two are together, Will gets a Lecture thrown right back at him.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Will could have been a success earlier in life but never showed off his mad math skills.
  • Butt Monkey: Morgan is this among his friends.
  • Cluster F-Bomb
  • Cool Old Guy: Sean
  • Deadpan Snarker: Will, almost constantly, and Sean, whose snark is a little less pronounced but all the more effective.
  • Delusions of Eloquence: Chuckie when he poses as Will in the job interview.
  • Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off: Will explains that his foster father psychologically tortured him by making him choose what item he would be beaten with (from a belt, stick or wrench). Will always chose a wrench as a "fuck you" to his father.
  • E = MC Hammer: The completed algebraic equation given by Lambeau as a challenge is (in real life) a basic linear algebra problem. This is pretty advanced for most people (beyond calculus), but not for a college mathematics professor.
  • Epiphany Therapy: Maguire helps Will turn a serious corner in his life and inspires him to be something more by getting Will to admit that it wasn't his fault that his father abused him.
  • Epunymous Title
  • Foreshadowing: Maguire is introduced teaching a community college class on psychology, specifically on the importance of trust. The only reason he's able to help Will is because Will trusts him.
  • For Want of a Nail: Will's lengthy explanation of why he doesn't want to work for NSA.
  • Genius Bruiser: Will.
  • The Glasses Come Off: When Will presses Maguire's Berserk Button, he calmly takes them off in the background before unleashing a Tranquil Fury-infused death threat to Will.
  • Good with Numbers: Will, obviously. Otherwise, he couldn't be a math genius.
  • White And White Morality: Everybody wants Will to succeed and use his potential, but there's some difference on how he should use it. While Lambeau believes that Will has a gift that shouldn't be wasted, Maguire believes that Will needs to have the desire to try first.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Will and Chuckie, as are Damon and Affleck in real life.
  • Hollywood Hype Machine: Affleck and Damon won an Academy Award for their script, and promptly became the biggest stars in Hollywood. They've parlayed that success into different avenues over the years, with Damon appearing to be much more critically and commercially consistent than Affleck, whose career petered out for a period of time in the mid 00's. However, Affleck has \reinvented himself as a well-respected director, a la Clint Eastwood, at the same time as Damon's career began to stagnate.
  • Hollywood Law: A genius janitor tries to get his assault on a police officer (a serious charge) dismissed by saying it was "self-defense against tyranny". A college professor is allowed to intervene with a judge and speak on the student's behalf to get the charges deferred. A judge quotes two-hundred year old cases during Will's trial that have likely been superceded by current laws and decisions.
  • Hollywood New England
  • Immune to Mind Control: One of the psychologists they first take Will to tries to hypnotise him. Will pretends to recall an alien abduction for a minute, then jumps up and starts laughing.
  • Improv:
    • Much of Robin Williams' monologue about dating was ad-libbed.
    • According to the filmmakers' commentary, Sean and Will's laughter in the scene when Sean talks about his wife's flatulence is genuine. The joke that really sent them off the deep end (not used in the actual film)?
      Sean: I woke up and said, "Somebody light a match!"
      Will: Was that how she died?
  • Informed Attribute: There's little display of Will's math genius in action. The most the audience sees is Will putting the final touch on several equations - otherwise, it's referenced by others. Enforced, because most moviegoers won't understand higher-level math and it wouldn't be good drama even if they did.
    • To be clear, while there's minimal on-screen displays of his mathematical abilities, the audience repeatedly gets to witness to his overall brilliance first-hand, seeing him fire off and deconstruct whole pages of complex historical economics from memory, including page numbers, cite decades-old legal precedents during his trial, and demonstrate a thorough understanding of international geopolitical conflicts and their social, ethical and economic ramifications, which he eloquently summarizes in a spectacular monologue to a director of the NSA and then repeats verbatim to Sean hours later (which is when the audience gets to hear it).
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Will is an isolated, delinquent, genius teenager from the slums of Boston, and Sean is a middle-aged, dissatisfied and lonely community college psychology professor.
  • Jerkass: Apparently, the film title itself is not to be trusted, since Will himself is not a nice person.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Will and Lambeau (to a degree) fall under this; nice guys deep down but have a lot of crud on top because of crappy pasts.
  • Just Think of the Potential: Human variation in regards to Will. When Lambeau and Maguire are in a bar discussing (heatedly at times) the former's motivations about why he's so interested in Will's mathematical genius, Lambeau argues by an Appeal to Obscurity that it's not about the fame for him - he goes over to the bartender Tim and asks whether he's heard of Jonas Salk ("Sure, cured polio") and Albert Einstein (Tim just laughs) before asking about Gerald Lambeau, Fields Medal recipient (Tim has not).
    Lambeau: This isn't about me, Sean. I'm nothing compared to this young man.
    • Maguire then flips it back on Lambeau by showcasing an example where exploiting the potential isn't necessarily good: a 1960's University of Michigan graduate who did brilliant mathematics work, specifically in bounded harmonic functions. He later became an assistant professor at Cal-Berkeley, where he showed much potential. Then he moved to Montana "and blew the competition away."
    Lambeau: Yeah, so who was he?
    Sean: Ted Kaczynski.
    Lambeau: Haven't heard of him.
    Sean: (to Tim) Hey, Timmy!
    Tim: Yo.
    Sean: Who's Ted Kaczynski?
    Timmy: Unabomber.
    (Lambeau winces)
  • Justified Title: Trust, i.e. 'good will' is necessary for helping Will.
  • MacGuffin: Will's math talents drive the plot of the film, but it's an Informed Attribute (see that trope above).
  • Maybe Ever After: The movie ends with Will going to California to make things right with Skylar. We never do see their reconciliation.
  • Meaningful Echo: "I have to go see about a girl."
  • Missing the Good Stuff: Maguire's story about Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Pointedly, he makes it clear that not meeting his wife would have what he really missed.
  • Mood Whiplash: Maguire shares a funny story with Will, of how his wife farted in her sleep, and they both burst out in belly laughs when Maguire says she farted so loudly she would wake the dog, and wake herself up. Maguire then bluntly states that his wife has been dead for two years. Will immediately starts to feel a tinge of guilt, having previously casually insulted his wife.
  • The Mourning After: Getting married again is not a option for Sean, Will considers both it cowardly and hypocritical to have loved his wife so much, and refuse to even try again. Through his treatment with Will, Sean starts to agree, and is willing to "play another hand'' just to see what happens.
  • Odd Friendship: Maguire and Lambeau, although their relationship is strained, are revealed to have been old buddies and reconcile as the movie progresses.
  • The One Who Made It Out: Inverted. Will wants to stay in Southie but Chuckie desperately want him to use his gifts to become the one who gets out.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping:
    • Happens to Prof. Lambeau (played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard) occasionally.
    • Robin Williams remembers to drop his r's every once in a while, but not enough to sound like a guy from Southie. Justified in that he's apparently been living elsewhere for some time, and could have lost the accent naturally.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome/Can't Catch Up: Lambeau, by Will. Agonizingly lampshaded by Lambeau himself.
  • Pet the Dog: Will sees an old bully at a ballgame and contemplates jumping him, but opts to get some burgers instead. He later sees the guy on the street, and goes for him only after the dude catcalls a random woman.
  • Photographic Memory: Played with. Maguire talks with Will about his ability to memorize books and analyze information fast, but not know the feelings, emotions and sensations that result from a lifetime of personal experiences.
  • Power of Trust: Lambeau teaches this to a student by throwing an apple to him out of the blue, and asking what he learned from the experience.
  • Product Placement: Chuckie always shows up to see Will with a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee for him.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Several times, including Chuckie's speech to Will, where he explains that Will is an idiot if he gives up the opportunities he's been handed.
    Chuckie: Look, you're my best friend, so don't take this the wrong way, but in twenty years, if you're livin' next door to me, comin' over watchin' the fuckin' Patriots' games and still workin' construction, I'll fuckin' kill you. And that's not a threat, that's a fact; I'll fuckin' kill you.
  • Satisfied Street Rat: Will is one, up until his genius is discovered.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Maguire used to be in the military, and tells Will about the trauma of having a fellow soldier die in his arms.
  • The Shrink: Maguire tries to help Will with his personal issues.
  • Single-Issue Psychology: Will (who has successfully fended off helpful and unhelpful psychotherapy throughout the movie) turns a corner (and successfully changes his outlook on relationships) at the end of the film by exchanging graphic memories with Sean about their respective abusive childhoods, then crying as Sean repeatedly tells him, "It's not your fault." It was cited by some critics as the one thing in the movie that seems like it was written by people as young as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were at the time.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Will has quite the filthy mouth.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Easy Listening music (Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street") plays during the brawl incited by Will & co.
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome: Unique that in Will's case it's self-inflicted, and inverted completely when Chuckie tells Will that he owes it to the rest of them to make something out of his life.
  • Therapy Is for the Weak: Will's attitude at the beginning of his court-mandated therapy sessions.
  • Unsportsmanlike Gloating: After Will beats Clark at an impromptu argument over education in the bar, he sees the latter sitting in a diner with his friends, and walks over to tell him that he got Skylar's number (using the famous "How do you like them apples?" quote).
  • Worth It: Sean is admeniant that all the good years with his wife were worth the pain of loosing her to cancer. Will can't commit to Skylar despite how much he clearly loves her because he's stuck on every bad thing that might happen down the road.
  • You Wouldn't Believe Me If I Told You