Good Will Hunting

by KE Monahan Huntley

(Quotations used in this article are from the development script dated 12/4/96 by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.)

The film delivers an intellectually and emotionally fulfilling story. Cast with real life friends and screenplay authors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, dialogue is realistic, if sometimes too quick, accents thick, and asides perhaps too inside for the audience to catch. A nice moment intimating Damon and Affleck's long time friendship is a glance into their characters' daily routine--the fluid motion of sliding into the car, coffee in hand, and moving off. The storyweaving of all four throughlines is tight--a scene depicting the passionate argument can also contain points pertinent to the main character, influence character, and objective story throughline (e.g., Sean McGuire in his psychologist role). It is no surprise this fine first effort has, as of this review, already been awarded Best Original Screenplay from the foreign press, and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Will Hunting is a punk prodigy. He is the main character; his problems occur in the physics domain. Will is concerned with doing what it takes to get by--his activities have no inherent purpose. Abandoned and abused, Will carries a colossal chip on his shoulder--he is a do-er who strikes out with his fists, and defends himself and his friends with brilliant intellect ("My boy's wicked smart"). He has a male mental sex, particularly well represented in his symptom of cause and response of effect, yet his genius, in a sense, is holistic:

WILL

Stone deaf and he [Beethoven] saw all of that music in his head.

SKYLAR

So, do you play the piano?

WILL

Not a lick. I look at a piano and I see black and white keys, three pedals and a box of wood. Beethoven, Mozart, they looked at it and it just made sense to them. They saw a piano and they could play.

SKYLAR

--But you can do my O-Chem lab in under an hour, you can--

WILL

--When it came to stuff like that I could always just play.

Will works as a janitor at M.I.T. under the auspices of the Parole Employment Program. That he has solved difficult theorems on the main hallway chalkboard while swabbing floors causes Fields Medal winner Professor Gerry Lambeau to seek him out. Lambeau finds Will at his arraignment for assaulting a cop. The objective story takes shape as the judge decides, under the following circumstances, to allow Will a stay from his jail sentence:

LAMBEAU

I've spoken to the judge and he's agreed to release you under my supervision. . . . Under two conditions. . . . That you meet with me twice a week--get into some more advanced Physics. . . . The other condition is that you see a therapist.

The story goal of progress is then established:

LAMBEAU

The judge was very clear about this, you're to meet with me and a therapist every week and I'm responsible to submit reports on these meetings. If you fail to meet any of these conditions (optionlock), the Judge told me you will have to serve time.

Meeting these conditions by the week after Will's 21st birthday (six months) indicates a timelock, however, emphasis is placed on the limited options Will has in order to make progress with his intellectual and emotional potential.

Test is the problem shared by the objective and main character's stories. In the objective story, students prepare for examinations; rivalries between the "smart kids" and the "Southies" provoke challenges to prove oneself: "We can step outside and deal with it" and so forth. For Will, any relationship outside his own tightly knit friendships is subject to a proving ground exemplified by the number of therapists he goes through until meeting his influence character, Sean McGuire:

SEAN

Why is he hiding? Why is he a janitor? Why doesn't he trust anybody? Because the first thing that ever happened to him on God's green earth was that he was abandoned by the two people [who] were supposed to love him the most!"

Sean is Lambeau's last ditch effort to find a therapist for Will. His throughline is explored, appropriately enough, in the psychology domain. The screenplay description sketches his current existence: "Although there is a confidence in his eyes . . . he lost his enthusiasm long ago. Tired of teaching, tired of life, he finds himself resigned to the tedium of teaching core classes to an indifferent student body." Lambeau calls on their past friendship for the favor of Sean counseling Will, divulging, "You're from the same neighborhood."

Will sets off the relationship story concern of preconscious in his first session with Sean. He rudely and cruelly makes assumptions about Sean's marriage, unwittingly determining (relationship story problem) Sean's focus, the ceaseless mourning for his wife:

WILL

Or maybe you married the wrong woman--

SEAN

Hey, now--

WILL

That's it isn't it? You married the wrong woman. She leave you?

Sean is trying to contain himself.

WILL (CONT'D)

How are the seas now, Doc?

In a flash, Sean is out of his chair, around his desk and in Will's face. He holds him by the collar.

SEAN

You watch your mouth! Don't you ever patronize me! I don't care what you do! But when you open your mouth to speak to me you do so with some respect!

Will is skilled at taking one's measure, illustrated when he attacks Clark's pretentiousness and exposes hapless shrinks' affectations, but lacks real world experience to truly understand the ramifications of his actions, particularly when the actions are thoughtless (main character critical flaw). Sean, stung by Will's comments about his deceased wife, identifies his main character thematic conflict:

SEAN

You're just a boy. You don't have the faintest idea of what you're talking about. You've never been out of Boston. So if I asked you about art you could give me the skinny on every art book ever written . . . Michelangelo? You know a lot about him I bet. Life's work, criticisms, political aspirations. But you couldn't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. . . . Do you think I would presume to know the first thing about who you are because I read "Oliver Twist"?

A conversation about the progress of the therapy sessions illustrates the fixed mindset established in the relationship story throughline:

LAMBEAU

What do you mean "he didn't talk"? You sat there for an hour?

SEAN

No, he just sat there and counted the seconds until the session was over. It was pretty impressive, actually.

LAMBEAU

Why would he do that?

SEAN

To show me he doesn't have to talk to me if he doesn't want to.

LAMBEAU

Oh, what is this? Some kind of staring contest between two kids from the "old neighborhood"? This is ridiculous.

SEAN

I can't talk first.

Will finally opens up, revealing his interest in Skylar. Sean's unique ability of knowledge compels Will to consider the notion of trust:

SEAN

Well, are you going out again?

WILL

I don't know.

SEAN

Why not?

WILL

Haven't called her.

SEAN

Jesus Christ, you are an amateur. (Inexperience)

WILL

. . . You don't get it, she did everything right. Right now she's perfect, I don't want to ruin that.

SEAN

My wife's been dead two years, Will. And when I think about her . . . those are the things I think about most. Little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. Those made her my wife. . . . we get to choose who we're going to let into our own weird little worlds. You're not perfect. And let me save you the suspense, this girl you met isn't either. The question is, whether or not you're perfect for each other. You can know everything in the world, but the only way you're findin' that one out is by giving it a shot.

As the story continues, Lambeau asks Sean if he and Will have discussed the boy's future (objective story benchmark) because his (Lambeau's) "phone's been ringing off the hook with job offers. . . . Cutting edge physics, think tanks . . ." Lambeau has a fantasy (objective story issue) of Will as the second Einstein: "But it was one twenty-six year old Swiss Patent clerk, doing physics in his spare time, who read the mind of God. He changed the world." This conflicts with Sean's reality check (fact): "That's great, Gerry, if that's what he wants. But this kid's not here for nothing." He further ruminates: "Einstein. Had two marriages, both train-wrecks. The guy never saw his kids, one of whom, I think, ended up in an asylum."

Chuckie homes in on the main character benchmark of obtaining, declaring if Will fell in with Lambeau's plans, at least he'd "make some nice bank." In this same conversation, the objective story symptom of unending, and response of ending is illustrated:

WILL

What do I want a way outta here for? I want to live here for the rest of my life. I want to be your next door neighbor. I want to take our kids to little league together up Foley Field.

CHUCKIE

Look, you're my best friend, so don't take this the wrong way, but in 20 years, if you're livin' next door to me, comin' over, watching the fuckin' Patriot game and still workin' construction, I'll fuckin' kill you. And that's not a threat, that's a fact (objective story catalyst). . . . My best friend's sittin' on a winning lottery ticket and he's too much of a pussy to cash it in. And that's bullshit 'cause I'd do anything to have what you got! And so would any of these guys. It'd be a fucking insult to us if you're still here in twenty years. Hangin' around here is a fucking waste of your time.

WILL

You don't know that. (Test)

The passionate thematic exploration between worth and value explodes in the climatic last session between Will and Sean:

SEAN

This is not your fault.

WILL

Oh, I know.

SEAN

It's not your fault.

WILL

I know.

SEAN

It's not your fault . . .

The therapist is finally able (influence character issue) to convince Will of his self-worth and subsequent value to others, setting up the relationship story solution of expectation.

The Lambeau/Sean subplot effectively serves to develop the influence character throughline, yet is also responsible for the film's most awkward moment. Sean's problem is his hunch that Lambeau and the rest of their peers think he's a failure. While he remains steadfast in his relationship with Will, Sean changes in the subplot by starting to apply his concerns to his own theories. His new resolve occurs approximately at the same time Will is making his change--momentarily distracting the audience's attention from the power of the story's successful outcome. The moment passes, however, and it is all good for Will Hunting. He finally wises up (unique ability) and stops the careless treatment of his impossibly high IQ, and is last seen cruising cross country "to go see about a girl."

About the Author

KE Monahan Huntley is an editor and publisher based in Southern California. As one of the original contributors to Dramatica, she helped edit and analyze many of the examples. In addition, her numerous articles provided an insightful "conversational" approach to the theory. Today she can be found at Write Between the Lines or follow her on Twitter @kemhuntley.

Prev Articles Home Next

Dramatica Story Expert

the next chapter in story development

Buy Now