There once was a story going around Hollywood about a gay sex scene in an early draft of the Good Will Hunting script. Apparently there was a scene where two professors engaged in oral sex. Writer and star Matt Damon later explained that he and co-writer Ben Affleck inserted the scene as a test to see if studio executives actually read their re-writes but the following analysis suggests that such a scene might not have been so out of place after all.
Happily Ever After
At first sight Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting appears to be a fairly conventional love story albeit in the style of a gritty, urban, expletive-ridden art movie. A boy genius with intimacy issues overcomes his abusive past with the help of an understanding psychiatrist, gets the girl and lives happily ever after. On closer inspection, however, intentionally or not, the film alludes to so much more.
The Good And The Wise
Plato wrote, ‘There are very few good men in the world, and a great many very bad; and the very good are wise and the very bad are foolish… ‘(Cratylus). With not one but three different people vying for the attention of good Will Hunting (Matt Damon) – ‘the one’ they love – this is not so much a love triangle but a love quadrangle. It is easy to see what they love about Will. In a world of wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing Will is a refreshing change. Honest, true to himself, he has no hidden agenda or ulterior motive other than ‘to be’. He is transparent, stripped of pretension and self-serving desire – a precious stone in a world of murky pebbles. His room too, a reflection of his persona, stripped bare. This light has no need for shade. He has no need, nor want for titles or the respect of others as he happily undertakes menial labour to pay his way. With no respect for authority – the law, judicial system and the establishment are mere pretenders in fancy dress of which he makes a mockery – he condescends professors with an ‘at ease gentlemen’. Will Hunting bows only to the authority of Truth, and like the truth, Will is harsh and often hurts. As such, despite a small, loyal group of friends, Will is alone. An outsider looking in on a dishonest, conventional world. Drifting along, not quite sure how he fits into a world that doesn’t put a value on truth, his only outlet for his gift (or curse) is secretly solving near-impossible mathematical equations at the prestigious MIT whose floors society has deemed him only fit to clean.
Like Will, Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) is also alone. Esteemed Professor at the MIT, Fields Medal winner, surrounded by an ever-present panoply of sycophants eager to take his place, he’s a man lonely at the top. He has reached the heights of academic success yet something is missing which he yearns to fulfil. He flirts with his doe-eyed students but only half-heartedly as if he can’t be bothered, merely going through the motions. But it’s not physical stimulation a great mind like Gerald’s needs – it’s glory – and when he discovers Will Hunting, the mathematical genius, he discovers the perfect vehicle through which to attain this glory. With Will, Gerald has found what he is looking for – a partner or companion with whom he can conquer the world. Equation-solving sessions end with Gerald gently cuddling Will and playfully tussling his hair as his side-lined assistant jealously looks on but there is consternation in Will’s face. Perhaps Gerald has been here before. Psychiatrist, Sean McGuire (Robin Williams) is the last person Gerald comes to when looking for someone to counsel Will as part of his release from jail deal. All previous psychiatrists having given up on Will, Gerald has no choice but to consult one more. When asked by his assistant who he is, Gerald hesitates. ‘He used to be my um… my roommate in college.’ It is never explained what caused the rift between Sean and Gerald but what is clear is that these two were more than just roommates.
We first meet Sean Maguire lecturing his disinterested students about trust and relationships. When Gerald enters the room the look Sean gives Gerald wouldn’t have looked out of place in a romance. There is a visible tension between the two and Sean is visibly flustered. Sean and Gerald then go on what looks like a date. Table for two, romantic music, dinner and wine. The dialogue is reminiscent of two old lovers as Sean makes cutting references to Lambeau’s absence at his wife’s funeral. He seems disappointed, almost hurt when Gerald starts talking about Will and even asks ‘ How many psychiatrists did you go to before me?’ as one might ask a partner about their previous lovers. Although he tries to make light of the situation Sean appears hurt that Gerald came to see him only because he wants to use him to get through to Will. We know Sean had a wife, the now dead Nancy. Was she the cause of the rift between the two men? Later, towards the end of the film Gerald taunts Sean suggesting he’s angry at him because of what he could have done to which Sean replies, ‘I didn’t **** up. It was a conscious decision.’ Again it is never explained what the conscious decision was. Was marrying Nancy what they were referring to? Will certainly hits a nerve during his very first meeting with Sean, provoking Sean to violence by suggesting he married the wrong woman. Did Sean have to make a choice between a conventional life with Nancy and an unconventional one with Gerald?
Like Will and Gerald, Sean too is alone. His wife and soul-mate dead, he has only memories and a bottle of liquor for company. Sean is intrigued by the boy who has caught the attention of the great Professor Gerald Lambeau, perhaps even jealous. He attempts to mask his sentiments and gain Will’s favour by humouring him but as we know, Will is not stupid. Knowing a liar when he sees one, Will toys with Sean twisting and contorting the conversation in the direction he wants it to go, taunting and provoking him until in a rage, Sean forgets himself and drops the mask. Giving in to his rage, Sean threatens to ‘end’ Will if he ever disrespects his wife again but both he and Will know that he has lost this round. But where the others gave up and wrote Will off, Sean continues, rising to Will’s challenge. It is this refusal to give up on him and walk away that now intrigues Will. Sean wins the next round, pointing out Will’s encyclopaedic knowledge for what it is – an intellectual facade behind which hides a scared kid – and so their relationship begins.
Like Will, Gerald and Sean, Skylar (Minnie Driver) is also alone. A Briton studying abroad and, like Will, an orphan. She provides Will with physical stimulation but does she provide him with the intellectual stimulation that he so needs? The first time Will calls her is from jail to ask if she is ‘pre-law’. The next time he calls her he decides to hang up without saying a word. Skylar is seen reading a book called ‘Sexual Dysfunction In Neurological Disorders’. On their first date Will confesses he doesn’t date much suggesting sexual intimacy doesn’t interest or stimulate him. A bedroom scene consists of Will and Skylar talking rather than love-making. Twice Skylar tells Will she loves him and both times he rejects her – the first time explicitly telling her he doesn’t love her and the second time evading the gesture entirely instead choosing to reply ‘take care’.
When Will asks Sean about any regrets meeting his wife, could it be he is talking about himself and Skylar. He knows his relationship with Skylar is merely physical, lacking the intellectual stimulation he gets from Sean. Where Sean challenges, Skylar ingratiates. Where Sean pushes, Skylar panders. But his relationship with Skylar is conventional and acceptable whereas a personal relationship with Sean, almost thirty years his senior would not be. Will’s peers and macho environment would never accept nor understand it in a million years. At some point a choice will have to be made – an unstimulating yet conventional life with Skylar or a stimulating yet unconventional life with Sean. At first Will rejects the conventional option. When Skylar asks him to move to California with him, he gets angry. Like a trapped animal he pushes Skylar away citing his past abuse as an excuse before walking out on her. He sends his best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) to sabotage job interviews set up by Gerald and rejects a lucrative job offer from the NSA on the grounds that it would be morally wrong. But when Sean asks if he has a soul mate, someone who challenges him he evades the question even though he knows it is Sean who is his soul mate. When Sean asks Will what it is he wants to do, Will again evades the question. Forcing his hand, Sean throws Will out prompting an angry outburst from Will. Again Sean asks him what he wants to do and again Will cannot or will not answer. Dismissed by Sean, Skylar gone, Will at least has his friends to rely on or so he thinks. On a building site, alone with best friend Chuckie and a can of beer Will thinks he can continue drifting through life without having to worry about someone trying to save him so it comes as quite a shock to him when Chuckie threatens to kill him if he doesn’t make use of his intellectual gift. At this point Will knows he must make his choice even though it’s not a choice at all.
When Will walks back into Sean’s office Sean already know what choice Will has to make because he already made that choice before. By marrying Nancy he chose convention over an unconventional life with Gerald and he knows Will will do the same. Not because Will is a coward but because it is the world they live in. It is life. They can try to fight convention and ignorance but they cannot win. He knows it and Will knows it. Theirs is a love that cannot be realised. Referring to Will’s file and the abuse that he suffered at the hands of his foster father, Sean tells Will it’s not his fault. He continues to repeat the mantra ‘It’s not your fault’ but by now it is not Will’s case file he is talking about. It is the choice convention is forcing him to make. Will is confused at first by this repetition, then angry as he realises Sean’s implication that their relationship is at an end. Finally Will simultaneously let’s go, releasing years of pent-up emotion and at the same time clings on to Sean wrapping his arms around him in a flood of tears. Again nothing is explicitly said about what is really happening here nor does it need to be. Will’s tears and sobs say it all. The closest he gets to saying anything is ‘I’m so sorry,’ but what is it he’s so sorry about? For showing emotion? Possibly. Or because of the choice he has to make? ‘**** them,’ Sean says, consoling him – ‘them’ being convention, the ignorant and the blind – those incapable of perceiving true love with their hearts because they are blinded by what they see with their eyes.
Sean and Will’s final meeting wraps up the story and their relationship. Still never explicitly touching on what just happened it is merely referred to in verbal exchanges such as: ‘Time’s up’, ‘So that’s it. So we’re done?’, ‘You’re done. You’re a free man.’ Again Will comes close to verbalising something when he says ‘I just want you to know… ‘ but Sean cuts him off with a diplomatic ‘You’re welcome’. Sean would later repeat this diplomacy when Gerald also on the verge of verbalising something is cut off once again by Sean who replies ‘Me too, Gerry.’ Sean and Gerald then put their past differences behind them and ‘go for a drink’, walking up the stairs playfully arguing like an old couple.
The final shot is dedicated to watching Will drive off on the freeway to California having once again rejected a conventional job offer in favour of ‘seeing about a girl’ or Skylar. Will deciding if he has to follow convention at least he’s going to follow a convention that is fun. There is something sad about that car driving off in the distance accompanied by Elliott Smith’s meditative ‘Miss Misery’. It looks like the conventional happy ending we all wanted to see but it is this very convention that makes it unconventional because we know that Will is just pretending, going along with convention for convention’s sake. He’s conforming because convention wouldn’t have it any other way. Smith’s lyrics now explicitly stating what the characters wouldn’t say: ‘I’ll fake it through the day,’ ‘Its about taking a fall’, ‘A man in the park,’ ‘You had plans for both of us,’ ‘I don’t have you around.’ The mood then changes gear as the uptempo ‘Afternoon Delight’ by the Starland Vocal Band starts playing ending the movie on a bittersweet note.
Van Sant was right to never explicitly declare that this was a love story between men, because it wasn’t. It was a love story between great minds that transcended the bodies that they happened to inhabit.