No offense to Casey Affleck's character, but "wicked smart" doesn't even begin to do Will Hunting justice.
Will is a genius when it comes to just about anything you can learn in school. In the very first scenes of this movie, we watch him solve some of the most difficult math problems in the world. And the moment Professor Gerald Lambeau finds out about Will's intelligence, he wants to make sure that Will uses his gifts to contribute to the world of math.
He even tries to explain just how special Will is by telling his friend Sean Maguire about a man named Ramanujan:
LAMBEAU: Now this… this Ramanujan, his—his genius was unparalleled, Sean. Now this boy is just like that.
Yep, Will's level of intelligence is world-class.
And it's not like Lambeau is the only one who can see Will for who he is. Will knows his smarts pretty well himself, even. But instead of using them constructively, he tends to use his brain as a weapon to help him win fights. When he protects his buddy Chuckie from some not-super-suave mockery by a Harvard graduate student, Will whips out his encyclopedia knowledge to do the trick.
WILL: […] Next year, you're gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood. Talkin' about, you know, the pre-Revolutionary Utopia and the capital forming effects of military mobilization.
(Someone needs to Shmoop this conversation, so us lesser geniuses know what he's talking about.)
So here we have a janitor making a Harvard-educated jerk store look like, well, a jerkstore. Or as Will puts it, he's a guy who "dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin' education you coulda' got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library."
Yeah, he's funny, too.
At this point in the movie, we still might take Will's intelligence for granted. It's just a part of the movie's premise that he's gifted. The real conflict for him is the choice of how he's going to live his life and use (or not use) his natural gifts. After all, intelligence isn't the same thing as maturity.
And that's where the plot thickens.
Will seems pretty happy to spend his days drinking with his buddies and goofing off. But there's a darker side to him that we only find out about after he's jailed for assaulting a cop. The judge at Will's arraignment gives a quick rundown of Will's criminal career:
JUDGE: I just can't believe it. June '93, Assault. September '93, Assault. Grand theft auto, February '94.
Yup: Will ain't exactly a model citizen.
So now we've got ourselves an incredibly intelligent young man who also likes to get in fights and drink all the time. Or as Professor Lambeau so nicely puts it, Will likes "hanging out with a bunch of retarded gorillas."
It's only later in the movie that we find out some of the root causes for Will's emotional problems. For starters, Will was an orphan who experienced a lot of abuse in the foster families he stayed with (as Will says to Skylar, "You don't wanna hear that I had fuckin' cigarettes put out on me when I was a little kid!"). Or how about the fact that he was stabbed by his foster father?
Clearly (and for good reason), these experiences have left a lasting mark on his personality. He's slow to trust people and he's determined never to live on any terms other than his own. Which, uh, makes it pretty hard for him to hold down a job. It also makes it tough to commit to relationships because he's afraid everyone will just leave him like his parents did.
Early on in his relationship with Skylar, Will shows us that he's a charming dude. On their first date, Will admits that he "was hopin' for a kiss." And he gets one.
Of course, he then goes ahead and...doesn't call her.
That's when it becomes clear how Will's childhood and abandonment issues are going to affect this relationship.
As he tells his therapist Sean,
WILL: I mean... this girl is like fuckin' perfect right now, I don't wanna ruin that.
Will is so worried about being hurt that he has a tendency to cut off happy experiences before they even have a chance to go bad. And it's this kind of attitude that will cause him to miss out on some of the best stuff in life… if Maguire can't help him change.
Eventually, of course, Maguire helps Will overcome his fears—and Will starts hanging out with Skylar again. But commitment issues don't just vanish. He totally snaps when Skylar asks him to move to California with her. When Skylar asks why he's so upset, Will maps out her life:
WILL: You're going to go off to Stanford, you're going to marry some rich prick who your parents will approve of and just sit around with the other trust fund babies and talk about how you went slumming too, once.
Will simply doesn't believe that Skylar will keep loving him in the long run, so he wants to dump her before she has a chance to leave him. Skylar insists that she loves Will and wants to be with him, but Will won't hear it. He ends their relationship with a not-as-charming "I don't love you."
Yeah, we don't buy it either.
Eventually, Sean Maguire manages to get through to Will. You remember the scene: Sean talks to Will about his abusive childhood and tells him "It's not your fault" over and over (and over) until Will breaks down sobbing.
(And so do we.)
After the breakthrough, Will finally seems ready to move past some of his lingering childhood fears and make decisions about his future. He even takes a job with one of the firms Professor Lambeau has set him up with, telling Sean,
WILL: I haven't told [Lambeau] yet, but I went—I went down there and I talked to my boss and… my new boss. He seemed like a good guy.
Think there's something unsatisfying about Will taking a job with a think tank? So does he.
Will changes his mind.
Instead of going to work, he hops in his new car and heads for California to see Skylar again.
The only thing he leaves behind is a note for Sean:
WILL: If the Professor calls about that job, just tell him, 'Sorry, I had to go see about a girl.'
Yep, that's the same line Maguire used when he told his friend he was going on a date with his future wife more than twenty years earlier. The experience made a new man of him, and it looks like it's about to do the same for Will, who finally seems ready to make decisions and commit to his future.
How do you like them apples?
Everyone could use a Sean Maguire in their lives.
This guy lost his wife to cancer a few years before this movie starts, and he loves her more than we love Matt Damon with a Boston accent. When Will starts pushing his buttons, asking if his wife was ever unfaithful, he loses his cool:
MAGUIRE: If you ever disrespect my wife again, I will end you, I will fuckin' end you. Got that, chief?"
Show him who's boss, Sean.
Of course, most therapists would probably throw Will out of their office at this point—but not Maguire. He recognizes that there's something inside Will that's making him...do what he does. And he wants to get to the bottom of it.
After causing the initial kerfluffle, Sean's wife ends up being what brings Maguire and Will together.
Will asks Sean if he ever regrets meeting his wife—you know, because of the pain he feels now that she's gone. Of course, what Will's really asking is this: is it worth it to put your heart on the line if there's a chance you might get hurt?
MAGUIRE: I don't regret the eighteen years I was married to Nancy. I don't regret the six years I had to give up counseling when she got sick. And I don't regret the last years when she got really sick.
Totally worth it.
Maybe a little personal for a therapist, but by talking about his personal experience, Maguire is able to build trust with Will while showing him a good example of how to be vulnerable around the people we love.
It's not easy for Maguire to be Will Hunting's therapist, what with Professor Lambeau always breathing down his neck. The fact is that Maguire and Lambeau have completely different views on what it is to live a good life. For Lambeau, living a good life means fulfilling your intellectual potential, which is why he wants Will to work at a prestigious think tank. But for Maguire, the good life means making the decisions that are right for you… and not necessarily right for others.
When Lambeau challenges him on his philosophy, Maguire asks Lambeau to understand Will's situation:
MAGUIRE: Why is he hiding? Why doesn't he trust anybody? Because the first thing that happened to him, he was abandoned by the people who were supposed to love him most.
Lambeau thinks this is all just a bunch of sentimental nonsense, but Maguire insists that Will's life will be ruined if Lambeau pushes him too hard to be some big mathematical superstar. Lambeau's biggest problem is that he can only see the world through his own vision of success, while Maguire is willing to help Will figure out his own definition of success.
Sean Maguire is kind of a foil for Will, showing the audience what it looks like to experience things instead of just read about them, like Will does.
MAGUIRE: You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, and watched him gasp his last breath looking to you for help.
Maguire has been in the Vietnam War—the guy knows what it's like to watch someone die. Will, on the other hand, has only learned things from books; he's too scared to go out into the world and experience things for himself. Maguire spends the movie trying to get Will to open himself up to new experiences, sometimes by giving him the love he needs, and other times by straight up real talking:
MAGUIRE: You and your bullshit. You got a bullshit answer for everybody. But I ask you a very simple question and you can't give me a straight answer.
By the time the movie ends, Maguire's combination of trust and straight-talk has help transform Will. But don't forget: it's also helped transform Maguire himself. The dude realizes he needs to take his own advice and start living again instead of sitting around feeling sorry for himself over losing his wife. As he tells Will,
MAGUIRE: Yeah, you know, I figured I'm just gonna put my money back on the table and see what kinda cards I get. You do what's in your heart son, you'll be fine.
As different as they are, it turns out Maguire and Will both needed to learn the same lesson.
Two peas in a pod, eh?
We first meet Skylar at a Harvard Bar when Will totally decimates this guy named Clark in a battle of wits. Afterward, Will goes to hang with his friends until Skylar walks right up to him and says:
SKYLAR: You're an idiot. I've been sitting over there for forty-five minutes waiting for you to come and talk to me, but I'm tired now and I have to go home, and I couldn't sit there any more waiting for you.
So the first couple of things we know about her is that she's smart, charming… and not at all shy. And that all makes her a pretty good fit for Will.
Although her personality mixes well with Will's, Skylar comes from a very different social background. While Will comes from a rough neighborhood in Boston, Skylar describes her childhood as such:
SKYLAR: Growing up in England, you know, I went to a very nice school. You know, it was kind of progressive, organic, do-it-yourself, private school. Then Harvard. And then med-school.
She literally sums up her life when she says, "You know, if you think about it, at the end, my brain's going to be worth two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."
She knows this doesn't sound to great to Will, especially after she's heard him tell Clark how stupid it is to spend hundreds of thousands on an education.
But at the same time, she doesn't apologize for her money or her privilege because she's a strong person with a good sense of self.
So for much of this movie, we see Skylar as a smart, charming, and strong woman who has no trouble dealing with Will's personal hang-ups. But she gets put to the test once Will starts pushing her away. When Will calls her a phony rich snob, for example, Skylar answers,
SKYLAR: My father died when I was thirteen and I inherited this money. Nearly every day I wake up, and I wish that I could give it back, that I would give it back in a second if it meant I could have one more day with him, but I can't and that's my life and I deal with it.
This is pretty much a perfect answer from a perfect girlfriend, but it's still not enough for Will.
Like Sean Maguire, Skylar cares enough about Will to push him when she thinks it's necessary. And like Maguire, she also does a great job of giving Will lots of love without becoming an emotional doormat. She even tells Will straight-up at one point,
SKYLAR: You're afraid of me. You're afraid that I won't love you back. And you know what? I'm afraid too. F*** it. I want to give it a shot and at least I'm honest with you.
She knows that their relationship is coming to a now or never moment, so she gives Will an ultimatum by saying, "I love you. I wanna hear you say that you don't love me. Because if you say that, then I won't call you, and I won't be in your life..." Of course, Skylar is utterly devastated by Will's answer: "I don't love you."
But like any strong person, she moves on and heads for California. We don't know if she'll take Will back the next time he shows up on her doorstep, but we can be confident that she'll make good choices.
Oh yeah… one more thing about Skylar. She's also not afraid to get down and dirty with Will's buddies. In fact, she shocks them with the sheer raunch-factor of her dirty jokes.
Dr. Gerald Lambeau is a well-rounded character, but it's also clear what his main focus in life is: success and prestige. He's all about brains over brawn, brains over love, brains over friendship, brains over… well, basically over everything.
And it's this focus that often puts Lambeau into conflict with Sean Maguire. After all, Lambeau hired Maguire to help keep Will Hunting out of fights so he could focus on mathematics. But he's not happy when Maguire goes as far as asking Will to decide on his own version of success. As Lambeau bluntly tells Maguire, "Don't infect him with the idea that it's okay to quit, that it's okay to be a failure because it's not okay."
In other words, Lambeau will not be satisfied if Will chooses any path other than the one he (Lambeau) chose for himself.
In a sense, Lambeau is a good person who's just blind to seeing the world on any terms other than his own. When he speaks to Maguire, for example, he says,
LAMBEAU: You resent me. But I'm not going to apologize for any... any success I've had.
The truth is that Maguire is probably happy with the life he's chosen, but Lambeau can only see him as a failure who has squandered his abilities. For him, the good life means using your potential to achieve success, fame, and admiration from the people around you. And that's that.
Lambeau doesn't do a lot of growing by the end of this movie. But he does get upset enough to admit to Will,
LAMBEAU: Most days I wish I never met you. Because then I could sleep at night, and I wouldn't... and I wouldn't have to walk around with the knowledge that there's someone like you out there, and I didn't have to watch you throw it all away.
This comment helps us sympathize with Lambeau because it reminds us that his worldview can often cause him a lot of pain, especially when he's faced with someone as gifted as Will.
Lambeau can't stand the idea of Will throwing away his gifts because the truth is that Will could probably achieve more in one month than Lambeau has in his entire career. We don't know how things work out in the end for Lambeau, but we can probably assume that he'll not be happy with Will's decision to take off for California instead of working for a prestigious think tank.
Okay, sorry, we'll start over. We just love us a Boston accent.
Chuckie Sullivan is Will's best friend… which is saying a lot because Will doesn't trust that many people. Chuckie's also a pretty witty guy in his own right, as we find out when he jokes with his buddy about a sandwich:
CHUCKIE: All right, well, give me your f***ing sixteen cents that you got on you now, and we'll put your f***in' sandwich on layaway.
On top of his wittiness, Chuckie is also one of the most loyal dudes you'll ever meet. The second he sees Will get ready for a fight, he follows him to help out and tells his other buddy, "Let me tell you somethin'. If you're not out there in two f***in' seconds, when I'm done with them, you're next."
When it comes to living in the streets, Chuckie knows what it means to have someone's back.
Despite his charm and loyalty, it's clear that Chuckie is not on the same intellectual level as Will. Will tries to close this gap by hiding his intelligence most of the time, but we can still see the difference when Chuckie says things like,
CHUCKIE: This is a Harvard bar, huh? I thought there'd be equations and shit on the walls... I will take a pitcher of the finest lager in the house.
He also needs Will to save him when a jerk from Harvard named Clark starts making fun of his intelligence. Usually, Chuckie would just pull the guy outside and fight him. But at Harvard, he's not he's not on his own turf and he can't settle things the way he's used to.
For the most part, it seems like Chuckie's happy to have Will around all the time. But it's only at the end of the movie when he reveals what he really thinks of Will's approach to life. He tells Will that he's wasting his potential working construction. But when Will asks if he owes it to himself, Chuckie answers,
CHUCKIE: You don't owe it to yourself. You owe it to me. 'Cause tomorrow I'm gonna wake up and I'll be fifty. And I'll still be doin' this shit.
In Chuckie's mind, Will's life is an insult to all the men who work construction and wish they could be doing something else. Chuckie makes this clear when he says that the best part of his day is going to pick Will up in the morning and hoping he won't be there.
At the end of the day, Chuckie is a good enough friend to know that Will needs to escape their childhood neighborhood and go out to do great things. He also gets his wish in the movie's final scene, when he walks up to Will's door and realizes that Will has taken off. Chuckie doesn't know where Will has gone and he doesn't need to know. He's just happy that Will has finally decided to get out of their neighborhood and see the world beyond it.