'Good Will Hunting' and 'The Sweet Hereafter' were all about getting in touch with our emotions.
The fall of 1997 was, simply put, one of the most remarkable movie-going seasons of our time: Boogie Nights. Jackie Brown. The Sweet Hereafter. Wag The Dog. Eve's Bayou. Good Will Hunting. The Ice Storm. Amistad. As Good as It Gets. Gattaca. And so many more, culminating with what became the highest-grossing movie of all time: the long-delayed, oft-trashed, yet eventually unstoppable Titanic . Each week yielded another remarkable motion picture—sometimes two or more, taking bold risks, telling powerful stories, introducing formidable new talents, and reaffirming the gifts of master filmmakers. This series looks back at those movies, examining not only the particular merits of each, but what they told us about where movies were that fall 20 years ago, and about where movies were going.
“You here about the accident?” Wendell asks him. Mitchell Stevens nods: Yes, he’s here about the accident. That’s how everyone in the town refers to him—Mitchell Stevens, full name—and that’s what everyone calls the reason he’s there, “the accident.” No one knows the lawyer’s name, but everyone knows what happened out on the lake that day—that is, except the viewer. Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter operates under a non-linear, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later structure, which asks (nay, requires) the viewer to piece the events together themselves.
In that way, we’re not unlike Mitchell Stevens. He’s a lawyer, not literally an ambulance chaser, but close; he’s arrived in the small Canadian town as it’s still nursing an open wound from the horrible day when an icy road sent a school bus into a highway guard rail, which quickly crumpled and sent most of the town’s schoolchildren onto the thin ice. There were a few survivors, but not many.
Mitchell Stevens’ face is solemn and his voice is flat and matter-of-fact. But he can be calculating, choosing his plaintiffs carefully (“That’s good, judges like adopted Indian boys”) and putting on the anger and emotion when the time comes for a hard sell. But The Sweet Hereafter, based on Russell Banks’s novel, is not just about the accident or its aftermath—which is clear early on via the key image of a couple and baby asleep together, a visual first revealed without explanation before being given weighty context.
“I remember the summer we almost lost her,” Stevens says of the baby who's now a grown woman, in a monologue staggering in its emotional depth and complexity. He tells the story years later, on a plane where he finds himself seated next to a barely remembered acquaintance; he talks and talks, offloading all his pain and grief—and she listens, but it’s such an unburdening for him that her attentiveness and her very presence almost doesn’t matter. (Stevens is played by Ian Holm, in a performance that’s all the more astonishing when put next to his appearance in one of the biggest movies of 1997: The Fifth Element.)
Egoyan’s screenplay snakes through time, gracefully juggling four frames: the accident, the days just before it, the days just after it, and that plane ride years later. It’s not just narrative gimmickry, however; he ends up capturing the way the time around a tragedy can become a blur, a hazy smear in which everything runs together, both for those who survived and those who lost.
One of the survivors is the bus driver, Dolores (Gabrielle Rose), who lives in a state of perpetual sorrow and anguish, even though it’s clear it really was an accident. There’s an incredible moment early on when she’s telling Mitchell Stevens about one of the kids, where she escapes from the crushing overwhelmingness of this event, if only briefly. You see in her eyes as that momentary flight away from her reality is brought to a crashing halt, and in that moment Egoyan and his actor capture the way a tragedy can overwhelm an entire existence.
That’s what it does for Dolores—and for Billy (Bruce Greenwood), the father who was driving behind the bus and saw it all, and for Nicole (Sarah Polley), who was on board and survived. All of them have that trauma bearing down on them, and they have to find ways to manage it—none of them productive.
“We’re all citizens of a different town now,” Nicole says in the film’s final voice-over, and that’s the true power of Egoyan’s film; how in shuffling the chronological deck, we see what once was in this town, both in its light and its darkness, and how none of it will ever be the same, no matter what Mitchell Stevens says.
Good Will Hunting was released two weeks after The Sweet Hereafter, and it's a far more mainstream drama with its own potent story of overcoming the traumas of the past. It sneaks up on you, to some extent; director Gus Van Sant gives it the crisp, autumnal photography of the prestige picture it would become, but he throws in flourishes of experimentation and stylization. I’m thinking particularly of Will and his crew’s ugly, slow-motion street brawl (scored, with admirable incongruity, to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”). But our protagonist isn’t just some hood; a few scenes later, hard on the heels of that street fight, he proves equally adept (and no less brutal) at an intellectual bar fight.
Yes, Will Hunting—as everyone must know by now—is a working-class genius, and Good Will Hunting (I’ll yield little to the film’s many detractors, but will admit that Good Will Hunting is a terrible title) is the story of how this janitor-cum-Southie prodigy is saved from a life of grunt work when he casually decodes an “unsolvable” proof on a hallway chalkboard at MIT. The man who put the proof up is Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), who gets Will out of an assault charge by putting him to work in the math department and putting him into therapy. It turns out the only therapist who can handle him is Lambeau’s old friend Sean (Robin Williams).
“It’s a poker game with this kid,” Lambeau warns him, but their inaugural session is more like a street corner encounter between two barely-leashed dogs: sniffing and circling each other, until Will growls, and Sean bites. There’s this little light in Will’s eyes when he sees that he pushed one of Sean’s buttons—he loves doing that—but to his shock, Sean doesn’t give up. In their next session, he takes him to a park bench and explains to him, in terms he hasn’t quite considered, that he may be a genius but he doesn’t know shit, and that he doesn’t know anything he hasn’t read about in a book.
Good Will Hunting was, famously, the breakthrough film for Damon and co-star Ben Affleck, who struggled as actors for years and figured they’d write it mainly to create work for themselves (a la Stallone and Rocky). And Damon is tremendous in the role—watch the lack of affect in his acting in the park bench scene; he’s barely “doing” anything there, just listening. But it’s riveting.
Of course, Damon also wrote himself a few showcase scenes. He falls in love with a brilliant Harvard girl (Minnie Driver), and it’s so intense that within a few weeks, she’s asking Will to come with her to graduate school in California; in a bleary-eyed, early morning argument, he pushes her away. It escalates from modesty and fear to pure confession, as he tells her about the stabs and cigarette burns on his body before pulling back: “YOU DON’T WANNA HEAR THAT SHIT, SKYLAR!” When she challenges him with a daring, “I wanna hear you say that you don’t love me,” he gives her what she’s asking for, because that’s easier. (Minnie Driver was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work here, and deserved it; watch the way she crumples after he leaves, or how she barely keeps it together when he calls her a few days later.)
Hunting also finds Affleck in his best kind of role—the big lug with a good heart. His Big Scene comes at the end of a work day over smokes and beers, in which he lays out exactly why he won’t accept Will’s plan to be another grinder. “Fuck you, you don’t owe it to yourself,” he tells his friend. “You owe it to me.” There’s a self-awareness to that monologue that’s sort of heartbreaking—a knowledge that Will is going places and he’s not, underscored by his (still!) goosebump-raising description of “the best part of my day.” This is some of the best acting Affleck’s done—both when he makes that confession and when it crosses his face in the film’s closing moments that his wish has finally come true.
Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work here (dodgy Boston accent notwithstanding), and it is a supporting role; he doesn’t show up until 30 minutes in. At first, it seems like nothing special, since we glimpse him doing his usual stand-up-lite schtick in the classroom—but watch how he immediately loses his bravado when his old pal “Gerry” appears at his door. One of the keener qualities of Damon and Affleck’s script is how it parallels the dynamics between its two key friendships, underscored by how closely Affleck’s tender speech is followed by Sean’s explosion. It's a moment of shared sentiments, packaged differently. “You think I’m a failure!” he tells his friend, but he isn’t: “I know who I am, I take pride in what I do.”
And perhaps it’s only because Sean feels so vulnerable at that moment (“A lot of that stuff goes back a long way between me and him,” he confesses to Will) that he feels ready to take his patient where he needs to go. Perhaps the film’s best-remembered scene, it's a therapeutic breakthrough that may be too clean, but lands like an emotional haymaker nonetheless. Everybody quotes his incantation to Will, “It’s not your fault,” but no one remembers the line that comes after it: “Look at me, son.” That last word, the tenderness implicit in it, “son,” is hair-raising, and watching Will break is genuinely shattering; this is their version of the kitchen scene in Boogie Nights, a moment in which a tough kid lets the “tough” part fall away.
That’s all of a piece with the emotional urgency of Good Will Hunting, a film in which a young person’s future genuinely matters, to many, many people. It’s a movie that captures – in a way that perhaps an older, jaded screenwriter could not convey – the limitless possibilities of youth, a movie in which a character can tell another, without cynicism, “You could do anything you want. You are bound by nothing.”
That may be why Good Will Hunting maintains its sway over this viewer, as the bloom seems to have gone off its rose for many others; I was 22 when it came out, about to graduate from college, and certain that it was speaking to me, offering counsel and inspiration. And in all fairness, its negative reputation as a calculated tearjerker strikes me as disingenuous. It’s a film where it always feels like real relationships are bleeding in—not just in the hang-out scenes between friends, but the flashes of blossoming romance (Driver and Damon began dating during the production, and there are moments between them where the freshness and authenticity betray their real spark.) I’d imagine that for those involved, watching it now is like watching old home movies. And it’s like that for much of its original audience as well.