I will warn you in advance… This blog entry contains movie spoilers.
A lot of people, it seems, have quite an emotional response to the two-time Oscar winning film Good Will Hunting. The film’s success is clearly reflected within its awards and figures, but most people who have seen the film seem to draw something deeper from it. Often it is a very on the surface account of the plot that is given by people to explain their emotional attraction to the film. It is, after all, a rollercoaster of a ride. It begins with a troubled young man – who can only be described as a genius – who works as a janitor at MIT; the film ultimately ends with him being in a much better place than he was before – a true underdog story. However, I feel as though this summary does not do the film nor the viewer justice. I would go as far as saying that Good Will Hunting is the most important Hollywood film ever made from a philosophical perspective. If viewed through the lens I am about to offer now, I think the film can give you great insight about yourself, your own life and the direction of your life and own being.
I want to focus on what I believe to be the most important part of the film (at least from a philosophical perspective): the relationship and discussions between Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) and his counsellor Sean Maguire (played by the legendary Robin Williams). Will Hunting, who is the main character, is a 20 year old boy genius, capable of effortlessly solving mathematical problems that award-winning mathematicians struggle with. Will, however, and mainly due to his history, has what one might describe as a bleak view on life; he is very nihilistic, and spends most of his time avoiding all meaning and responsibility in fear of being emotionally hurt. Sean Maguire, on the other hand, is the complete opposite to Will. He is a middle-aged man, who wears his heart on his sleeve but is also very intelligent. Sean had lived a life of meaning; he had been married to the love of his life for years, until she died of cancer. A lot of the key conversations between Will and Sean seem to revolve around love, relationships and pain.
On the topic of relationships, Will and Sean, yet again, are at two polar opposites. Will, who begins dating a girl and seemingly falls in love with her, refuses to commit himself emotionally or even admit his feelings to himself and others. Sean, as we know, was romantically and wholly committed to his wife, who he clearly loved very much. In short, Will is afraid of getting hurt, whereas Sean has been hurt in the most tragic of ways. When Will questions Sean over this, Sean says that he has no regrets, because it was worth spending all that time with the love of his life, despite his pain. This is what we call meaning, and Will refuses to see it. For anything meaningful to occur, there must be some pain along the way. To give a common and obvious example, somebody who is looking for a long-term partner is likely to experience heartbreak at least once on the road to a relationship. It is very much like the Yin and Yang symbol – there can be no white without black, no love without pain and no happiness without sorrow. But Will undertakes what Sean (and others) describe as a “super philosophy”. Will’s life philosophy was as follows: never get close to anybody or anything, never commit to anything meaningful, because that way you can’t get hurt. But, as Sean constantly tries to point out to Will, how can one lead a meaningful or happy life with such a philosophy? I would, if you have not discovered this deeper philosophical plot already, recommend watching the film again. But, instead of just viewing the conversations between Sean and Will as therapy sessions, view them as philosophical battlegrounds, because that’s what they essentially are.
But it is not only the therapy discussions between Will and Sean which are extremely philosophical, but the entire films plot within itself. What is most interesting is that the film seems to be an inflated version of the discussions between Will and Sean; or, between meaning and nihilism. Everything from Will’s relationships, education, social life and career is a constant flirtation from nihilism to meaningfulness and responsibility. He dips his toe into the pool of responsibility, but then always seems to end up refusing to take the plunge (until the very end of the film, at least).
Now, the question is, what can watching this film tell us about ourselves and our own lives? Quite a lot, I think. I’ll give you my own personal experience of this. When I first watched the film, I was about fifteen years old. At this time in my life, mainly due to personal reasons, I was very nihilistic and negative. I took a very similar view as Will in terms of how one should live life. However, from the ages of around 17-18, I undertook a huge personal transformation. I now actively seek meaning and responsibility, and in short, I would now identify with Sean’s outlook on life rather than Will’s. When I first watched the film, I found myself (for obvious reasons) sympathizing and relating to Will more. But watching the film for the second time as a nineteen year old, after this huge personal transformation, I found myself whole heartedly admiring Sean, and almost egging Will on to take the plunge every time he dipped his toe into the pool of meaning.
The film, as far as I can see, can be used as a good measure on one’s life. Given these two contrasting characters, and the running theme of nihilism vs meaning throughout the entire film, it can be used as a tool to discover where you – or somebody else – is in terms of the way they live their life and how they view more specific things such as family, friendships and romantic relationships. I found, on second viewing of the film and general reflection, that my views on life have swayed dramatically, and I am now reaping the rewards of that, and living a much fuller and more meaningful life. I would be very interested to hear how others perceive the underlining philosophical battle within the film. So, I would highly recommend watching the film again, especially if you have undergone a huge personal transformation since the last time you watched it. And, I can guarantee you, that it will reveal a bit more about yourself than you’d expect.