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Why Good Will Hunting Is Hard to Watch 20 Years Later in 2017
Under normal circumstances, Good Will Hunting, released 20 years ago this week, would be taking a victory lap. The 1997 Gus Vant Sant film saw Robin Williams earn his only Oscar win and made Matt Damon and Ben Affleck household names (while netting each of them a screenwriting Oscar, too). The coming of age film seemed like a classic.
Twenty years ago, “Boston” as a genre of entertainment was a relatively unique idea, Cheers notwithstanding. At the time, we were still the underdogs, known, if for anything besides history, for being a hard-scrabble city of lovable losers, defined by the failure of our sports teams rather than the largesse of their victories as we are now. Let me put it this way: You didn’t hate Boston in 1997. Today, you do. It was a thrill to see that city reflected onscreen for the first time, to have your provincial identity reflected back at you. Especially for a suburban kid who was desperate to begin the part of his life defined by living in Boston. Never mind that it was a simulacrum. When you see yourself being seen for the first time, even if through a filter, it’s a hell of a drug.
My friends and I quickly incorporated the dialogue into our lexicon, alongside Swingers and The Big Lebowski quoting that passes for conversation among young men in place of emotional openness. “Morgan, yah going,” we’d say when it was time for someone to make a beer run. “Get off mothers, I just got off yours.” For a couple years after, I eagerly let the film identify me for people I’d meet from around the world in college and elsewhere. It didn’t hurt that I bore a decent enough resemblance to Damon (trust me on that one). I even had the stupid swooping blonde undercut. “No, I’m not from Southie, per se. Near there.” I didn’t grow up in the city, but I spent many of my weekends coming here as a teenager, and would move here for the first time that summer, making the Harvard Square of the film the center of my universe, much as it still is today.
None of the logistical and geographical inconsistencies mattered. None of the forced references or the embarrassing dropped r’s, because these were our guys. At long last, here were our guys. Neighborhood guys. And when they’re your guys, you let them get away with things. They’re good kids. They wouldn’t hurt anyone. Which is another reason why the film is harder to watch now than it was in 1997.
Miramax, the studio headed up by Harvey Weinstein at the time, is the first word to appear on the screen. At the time of its release, Weinstein was allegedly harassing three of the most prominent women among a lengthy list to have come forward against him: Asia Argento, Rose McGowan, and Ashley Judd. Since the Weinstein story broke, Affleck, too, has been accused of varying degrees of inappropriate behavior. Both he and Damon have spoken out against Weinstein, saying they were aware to some extent of his reputation, although not the criminal aspect of it, including an incident of harassment against Gwyneth Paltrow, whom Affleck would later date. Casey Affleck, the likable, goofy, put-upon character of Morgan in the film, has settled his own harassment cases, as well. Mel Gibson, of all people, was originally set to direct.
It’s hard not to let what we now know about the people involved in the making of the film retroactively color the project in a more sinister light.
Throughout the film, moments of sexual harassment are played for laughs. Will humiliates a series of therapists with homophobic jokes. A gay prostitute character in prison is presented as a punchline. The second scene of the film finds the older Affleck’s affably coarse character, Chuckie, shouting at a woman about sex across a bar. Soon thereafter, Stellan Skarsgård’s foppish and regularly emasculated Professor Gerald Lambeau is found propositioning one of his young female students. It’s a recurring theme. At another point, Minnie Driver’s Skylar gets a silent phone call late at night while studying a Sexual Dysfunction in Neurological Disorders text and asks whether it’s one of her professors calling again.
“How do you like them apples?” Will taunts another man after getting Skylar’s number. Why did we ever consider that a heroic victory? That’s the corniest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Later, during a love scene, she spells it out for Will: “Men are shameless,” she says. Even Williams’s sage and sensitive Sean Maguire traffics in questionable sexual humor. “Nail them while they’re vulnerable, that’s my motto,” he jokes to his class.
If much of this sounds like nit-picking what was permissible 20 years ago, that’s exactly the point. Yes, there is certainly something to be said for flawed characters, and even for sympathetic and otherwise likable ones like those played by Williams and Damon. Men, even the good ones, say and do shit like this all the time. Damon’s character is, of course, a product of horrific physical abuse by his foster parents. But in the context of the film, it amounts to a dispiriting accumulation of transgressions both minor and overt that become exhausting. Maybe this is what it feels like to be a woman?
Skylar is the only female character with memorable speaking lines. She is given things to do, and she’s presented as a talented individual, but she is ultimately a cypher—more of a stand-in for the idea of women than a specific person. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, as the basis of the film involves men reducing women into motivating factors for their own narratives. Williams’ entire arc centers around the absence of his own wife. Skylar is a prize that Will both seeks and pushes away, and ultimately pursues after she has, perhaps justifiably, left him behind.
All of that comes amidst the air of death that permeates the film now. Williams took his own life. Elliott Smith, whose music is used so effectively throughout, died himself under mysterious circumstances in an apparent suicide. The Boston depicted in the film, if it ever really existed, is a distant memory as well. Many of the landmarks used have long since been demolished, torn down and replaced.
For all of the film’s flaws that have become more glaring over time, for all of the problematic gender politics that we might’ve ignored at the time, and the disappointing behavior of the men involved, there’s still something at the heart of the film that resonates today. Good Will Hunting has always been a film about violence, about death and loss and change. But as we’ve changed as a culture, the type of progress it hints at has taken on a new light. People, both specifically, and as a whole, can improve. They can leave the patterns of abuse in the past. They simply have to listen when they’re told it’s time.