By: Kelly FitzGerald
This weekend I watched Good Will Hunting, which I chose because it’s a classic that I had somehow never seen. I actually thought it was going to be about hunting (animals specifically), until I read the brief summary which mentioned the main character’s name, Will Hunting.
With that said, think the title (and Will Hunting’s name) were very carefully crafted by the writers, offering an ambiguous duality of meaning. The first way you can read the title is with “Good” as the limiting adjective which describes Will Hunting. In other words, understanding Will Hunting as a good person. The second way you can read the title is by linking Will to Good (so we think Goodwill) and then reading Hunting as a verb. This suggests the film is about hunting (or searching) for something out of goodwill or for goodwill. Or perhaps, a combination of the two would suggest a search for a “Good” (or better) Will (the protagonist). At any rate, these possibilities mirror the complexities of the main character, the complexities of chance and choice, and most importantly, the complexities of finding truth among multiple possibilities. Even after watching the entire film, I still couldn’t tell you exactly which meaning of the title might have been most intended by the director, as all are plausible options.
While still on the topic of our main character, Will Hunting, it is worth expanding on some of his character traits and seeing how they defy and align with the cinematic portrayals of other mathematicians. Like Paul Erdos and Alan Turing, Will Hunting is abnormal when it comes to social behavior, though on an entirely different plane. In contrast to Erdos and Turing, math is not something that Hunting is excited about. He isn’t good at it because he spends every waking moment trying to solve mathematical problems, he is good at it because it is a gift, something he was “born with.” In fact, he displays complete disinterest in the world of math, only solving problems because he is baffled that others waste so much time trying to solve something he can do in a couple seconds. Hunting’s abnormal social behavior (defined by violence, arrogance, and an incapacity for relationships) is a product of his past experiences, a “defense mechanism” as Robin Williams’ character coined it. Though certainly not a requirement to be a good mathematician, it is interesting to note that Hunting’s fictional past was consciously constructed by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, adding to the narrative of social abnormality that we have come to associate with mathematical genius.
The most interesting part of the film for me is the conflict between educated privilege and uneducated (or undervalued) intelligence. There are multiple instances where Hunting and Maguire, (the latter a foil to the former), are engaged in verbal arguments with their more successful counterparts. The first major example is when Hunting gets in a fight with a scholar at a bar, inflicted by the student’s perception that Hunting and his friends are inferior since they lack a degree and/or prestigious occupations. Hunting of course comes back at him, delivering (what I find to be) the truth about educated arrogance, suggesting that intelligence goes beyond knowing and regurgitating information. Rather, true intelligence is the ability to author one’s own ideas and to craft new possibilities from knowing what is already out there. It is not something you can simply fork over a lot of money for, nor does it define success. These truths, which leave the audience rooting for the underdogs (Hunting and Maguire), are what really captured my attention throughout the film. It is easy, being a student, to see this spectrum of behavior, and how possession of a degree can breed entitlement. The truth is, intelligence comes in all shapes and sizes, can be interpreted many different ways (like the title), and can be developed outside of a traditional classroom. More importantly, the film reminds its audience that intelligence is not the key to happiness. It’s the capacity to love and to accept…as imparted by Maguire.
To read a second review, published in 1997 by the New York Times, click here.