Good Will Hunting

11 Mar 1998

Paul R. Potts

This film fills the screen with chalk dust, tweed, unwashed dishes, rust, floor wax, broken concrete, cigarette ash, scars, and sweat. You can almost smell it. The palette is not beautiful, but extremely convincing. Extended use of location shots bring South Boston and M.I.T. to us. The realism of this presentation is necessary, because the story is extraordinary and without this rooting, would more easily begin to stretch our credibility.

Will Hunting is an orphan from a broken and abusive home, a survivor of foster care, torture, and numerous prosecutions for brawls. His friends are fringe working-class: temporary demolition jobs, beer-drinking, fist-fighting, deeply loyal, and profoundly bonded.

But Will’s got a problem — he’s actually a genius. In his spare time, he’s apparently absorbed everything the Boston Public Library has to offer on American History and Jurisprudence, and also happened to pick up organic chemistry, psychology, and higher mathematics. A lot of higher mathematics.

Apparently algebraic topology* comes so easily to him that he not only has absorbed much of it virtually without effort, but has also indepently generated theorems he didn’t know already had names, probably while showering or brushing his teeth.

He’s an enigma. Because of his background, he’s violently defensive of his working-poor friends. He can’t keep himself from fistfights, heated arguments in bars, and partying with fearless abandon. There are many serious “buts” that tell us who Will really is. But, he likes being in the halls of academe — MIT. But, he cleans the floors. But, he can’t keep his gift to himself, obviously: while running a buffer over a spotless floor, he notices a theorem left on a chalkboard to challenge students — a theorem that took the math faculty two years to work out. He pauses to dash off a few Dynkin diagrams. It’s the right answer. But this time, he’s caught.

An MIT mathematics professor “discovers” Will — and tries to assist. He talks a judge into letting Will out of jail, on the condition that he go into therapy and spend a little time doing math under the professor’s tutelage. But Prof’s argument, the one that bright people always hear — that you must live up to your potential — just triggers Will’s bloodhound instincts to jump all over the hidden agenda, which is that he wants to play Hardy to Will’s Ramanujan and publish the papers, because he himself has already made his one notable contribution and passed his peak doing it. Home-boy Will ain’t gonna play that game.

While so defensive of his working-class background, Will has no compunctions whatsoever about using his scathing insight to attack anything he sees as hypocritical or self-serving. That is, pretty much everyone and everything he comes across. Will’s job interview with the NSA is help-I-can’t-breathe funny, but there’s something not quite right — Will doesn’t care about getting along with anyone and happily burns every bridge he crosses. He takes a little too much glee in showing his wit at everyone else’s expense.***

The scenes of Will with his girlfriend are incredible. There’s a love scene shot in such a muted and abstracted way that while hiding the bodies almost completely in the dark, we feel a fresh shock of voyeurism at the conversational intimacy the lovers display. It’s directorial genius. The whole film has almost no scene shot in a way that is noticeably predictable, expected, or dull. The film deserves the wide praise it has gotten for its writing. The dialogue is stunning. Not a single word is cliche. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wet yourself, and all that.

Robin Williams plays a tweedy psychoanalyst who refuses to take Will’s crap and maintains a brutal insistence on helping him get over his defensive posture — which has kept him alive so far, but which isn’t going to let him get along with anyone long enough to get to know them, including his girlfriend. Williams is excellent here as the bear-like father-Will-never-had.

This film is really about learning to pursue your own meaning. Will’s genius is just a catalyst — it pisses everyone off, and they drag out their own petty insecurities and defenses in response. Will’s inability to do anything with his life just make their own excuses seem that much weaker. They are unable to do the very things they are demanding of Will, so that they can smugly watch him fly from the safety of their own flimsy nests. He’s not going to give them that satisfaction, and instead of fitting into their molds, they’ll be forced to change forever.

*(I think it is algebraic topology. From the little I know and the little I was able to look up, I believe the diagrams he draws to solve the professor’s problems are Dynkin diagrams. At the moment, I can’t really explain what these are or what they are used for**).

**(Although this film has helped inspire me to get back into reading and practicing mathematics; ask me in ten years, and maybe I’ll be able to draw you some Dynkin diagrams and explain what they mean.)

***(Not that I’m defending the NSA…)

Sources for further reading:

Bamford, James. The Puzzle Palace. Inside the National Security Agency, America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization.

Kanigel, Robert. The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan.

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