It wasn’t that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were complete unknowns by the time Good Will Hunting hit theaters, it is much more that afterwards they were known everywhere. The movie, which they both wrote and starred in, rocketed the two men to an entirely new level. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film managed nine Academy Award nominations and won two of those nine, taking home the prize for Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams) and Best Original Screenplay (Damon and Affleck). Fifteen years later (yes, it’s okay to feel old), the film is hitting Blu-ray, not for the first time, but with over an hour’s worth of new special features (I wouldn’t actually buy this Blu-ray version, but we’ll get there).
Good Will Hunting is the tale of Will Hunting (Damon), a kid who grew up on the wrong side of Boston and without a family. Will has a brilliant mind but for a number of reasons (history, circumstances, fear, etc.) he has never been able to put his brain to good use. He opens the movie as a janitor at MIT and there manages to solve a terribly complex equation offered by one of the illustrious institution’s more renowned professors, Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard). Lambeau is immediately fascinated by Will and his mind and takes Will in, going so far as to convince a judge that he’ll make sure that Will not only has work but also goes to therapy.
Will, as one might expect, isn’t really open to this idea. He would rather hang out with his friend, Chuckie (Affleck), drink, and try pick up girls. In this, somehow, he actually succeeds, finding Harvard student Skylar (Minnie Driver). He also, after many failed introductions by Lambeau, winds up with a therapist with whom he can open up, Sean Maguire (Robin Williams).
Everyone in the movie, as is made clear, wants what’s best for Will. And, just as importantly, everyone but Will knows that he ought to be doing something more with his life. The question that no one can seem to agree on is how to get him there. Lambeau would have Will follow in Lambeau’s path. Sean simply wants to give Will the time, ability, and space to work it out on his own. And Chuckie just knows that his best friend is destined for more.
In the end, the movie is entirely about friendship and what we can do for, and to, the other people in our lives. With the right words—right encouragement—we can be a force of great good, but with the wrong words we can be just the opposite.
If the movie has a fault, it is that it is overly earnest. Right down to its cutesie title, the movie makes it clear that it is going to tug at heartstrings without remorse. There is a now famous scene in the movie where Sean is finally able to crack Will’s hard exterior by telling Will that it’s not his fault – Will keeps saying “I know” and Sean keeps repeating that it’s not Will’s fault until the younger man breaks down crying. It is, quite honestly, a preposterous scene, one overly laden with emotion and which plays as a farce if watched by itself.
The brilliance of the film—the screenplay, direction, and acting—is that taken as a part of the movie as a whole, this farcical scene is amazingly powerful. What in other hands would be a complete joke is made into something serious, solemn, and wonderful. Still, one can’t help but thinking back to the scene and wondering how exactly it is possible to become so invested in such foolishness.
But, succeed in getting the audience involved the film does, and does so in spades. Everyone in front of the camera is brilliant, particularly Damon and Williams (who has a beard to help clue one in that this is a drama, not a comedy). Van Sant is able to keep the film moving and light-hearted enough that even when things could get bogged down with the overly serious and schmaltzy, they do not.
It is easy to mock Good Will Hunting for its earnestness, but the truth is that if you let it, the film will suck you in. It won’t elicit tears if you’re not the crying type, but it will warm the cockles of your heart, and that’s pretty good.
The transfer used for this release is a good but not great one. There is certainly an inconsistent amount of grain and the occasional bit of noise or imperfection in the print. The detail level is high and nothing is lost in the shadow in dark scenes. The palette is a muted one, but warm, and it comes through here. Dialogue heavy, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track isn’t given much to do, but in crowded bars or street scenes, it does perform as necessary. The audio is clean (cleaner than the video), and Danny Elfman’s Oscar-nominated score rings through loud and clear.
The new special features for this anniversary edition include a four-part retrospective with those who worked on the movie returning to talk about how it all came together (a lot of this hinges on Affleck and Damon and, oddly, their friend and fellow filmmaker Kevin Smith). Minnie Driver doesn’t appear, and it would have been nice to hear from her as well. Even so, it is an incredibly interesting piece and well worth one’s time. It is proof that these sorts of first-hand recollections of films from our recent past can be produced in relatively simple fashion (this really is just a bunch of talking heads) but can still be incredibly interesting. Another new feature has more talk from Damon about the movie and is somewhat less good but still worth the effort. Older special features reappearing here include a commentary track, deleted scenes, an EPK-style featurette, the Academy Award montage (which really ought to have been redone 16:9, not a letterboxed 4:3), behind the scenes footage, and a music video for the Oscar-nominated song.
As for why I wouldn’t buy this version, that’s because for a couple of dollars more (at Amazon it’s more anyway), one can get last year’s release. That doesn’t include the new featurettes, but it does include a digital copy of the movie. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether they’d rather have the new retrospective or the digital copy, and I have trouble understanding why that choice is required – clearly the digital copy exists, it doesn’t feel like it ought to have been too difficult to include it here.
As for the film itself, 15 years later Good Will Hunting is just as impressive a movie as it was upon its initial release. Damon and Affleck’s careers have diverged and varied, but to many the two men will always be inextricably linked due to their work here. It is a film worth owning and worth watching again.