Few dramas have as many individual powerhouse scenes as Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. Though Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s quite exceptional script follows a fairly standard character arc, the reason it remains so fresh 20 years on is the sheer volume of immersive, highly emotional one-on-ones and wicked smart verbal battles, brought to life by some outstanding performances.
The two characters who share the majority of these exchanges are of course petty Southie criminal and invisible genius Will Hunting (Damon), and his reluctant therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). Their meeting on a Boston park bench and Will breaking down in Sean’s arms as the latter tells him the roots of his troubles are not his fault may be the film’s most iconic, oft-replayed sequences – alongside Will sticking it to the Harvard ponytail early on – but they are far from its only gems.
One scene in particular that stands out is the first time Will begins to subconsciously open up to Sean during their chess-like weekly meetings. Always questioning the status and nature of his own relationships, Will asks Sean about his late wife; does he regret meeting her due to the pain her illness and death subsequently made him feel, and when did he know she was the one in the first place?
What follows is one of the picture’s most heartwarming exchanges and a highlight of Williams’ performance, as Sean paints a vivid picture (helped by an inspired use of quick cuts to and from stock footage) of October 21st 1975; Game Six of the World Series at Fenway and the day he saw his future wife walk into a bar for the very first time. An increasingly excited Will (as us along with him) buys into Sean’s detailed description of his adventure securing a ticket to the game and experiencing Carlton Fisk’s game-winning home run in the bottom of the twelfth inning (a glorious overhead shot turns Sean’s office into a baseball diamond), only for the sobering payoff to hit both Will and us out of the park…
Sean wasn’t at the game. He stayed in the bar where Nancy’s entrance knocked him out and shared drinks with her until the early hours, missing one of the most legendary moments in Red Sox history having told his friends, “Sorry, guys. I gotta see about girl”. And the payoff doesn’t stop there. Indeed the script doubles down as Sean, having reeled Will in, nails him with the stone cold fact that the difference between missing that game and the regret he would have felt had he not done so to pursue Nancy is so gargantuan that to him, the former really was just another “damn game”.
One of the turning points for Will in terms of his ability to connect, the scene is a beautifully upbeat moment between two characters whose journey is otherwise fraught with defensive tension. What really makes it is the refusal to draw out or spike our emotions with music; the organic conversation, misdirection of Fenway and powerful imagery put forward by Williams does that for us. What a scene. What a script. What a film.