Character & Confilct

Excerpt

from CHARACTER & CONFLICT

GOOD WILL HUNTING

What I want to explore in some depth, is an analysis of character development using three significantly different films: the American films, Good Will Hunting and Driven, and the French film, Amélíe.

All of these films are presumably character-driven films, yet what the former lacks the latter don’t. Coincidentally, two these films were allegedly written by actors, not writers, and both were written with the same actors in mind to play the leading roles. I want to apply a lot of what we’ve been discussing in terms of the character’s quest and conflict to these films to see if those things apply and, if so, how well they apply.

Presumably, the screenplay of Good Will Hunting was written by both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, though the credits don’t say “Screenplay by,” but “Written by” which is not the same thing. There has been a lot of controversy about the script. In the February, 1998 issue of Written By, Damon says: “We met with a lot of studios and they were basically saying, ‘This is what we’d want to do with it.’ And we went with the place that we thought was the smartest place for that movie. And there was a lot of development. There was a lot of rewriting that went on once we went to Castle Rock, and when we went to Miramax. There were a lot of really good meetings–we met a lot of really good writers, from Terrence Malick to William Goldman to Ed Zwick. There were a lot of people who were friends of the court who came in and threw in their two cents for us, which was great. It was really helpful.” Add to that what Goldman himself has written in Which Lie Did I Tell? that “I think the reason the world was so anxious to believe Matt Damon and Ben Affleck didn’t write their script as simple jealousy. They were young and cute and famous; kill the fuckers” and “When I read it, and spent a day with the writers, all I said was this: Rob’s (Reiner) dead right. Period. Total contribution. Zero.” (Goldman 333) and it would appear the jury is no longer out.

Regardless of who allegedly wrote and/or doctored it, what’s clear about the film is that it neatly adheres to many of the basic principles we’ve been discussing in terms of the quest and does them in a very efficient manner. Let’s see how the opening scenes work that way.

Opening scenes

The storyline begins with Will being picked up by Chucky and his friends. It’s apparent that Will lives in a very poor section of what we soon discover is South Boston. Almost immediately we get “the ordinary world” established, the introduction of 2 of the most important leading characters in the film (Will, Chucky) and 2 of the somewhat important supporting characters are presented (his two friends) and all of this is done in seconds.

The scene then cuts to a classroom at MIT during which time the professor, Lambeau (another main supporting character), says that he’s put up an advanced phoria system problem on the main hallway chalkboard hoping that someone in the class will have proven it by the end of the semester. He enumerates those who have solved it, a list that includes Nobel laureates.

We cut to the next scene in which we discover that Will is a janitor at MIT. Will mops the floor, stops, notices the problem on the board and ponders it. So we get his normal job in his normal routine.

Then we get a bar scene with Will and Chucky during which time Will decides to go home. That would appear to be something uncharacteristic of Will, but it advances his character because in the next scene Will is standing in front of the mirror thinking about, then solving, the problem. He returns to his job the next day and answers the impossible question on the board. What follows that scene is a scene with Chucky in which the two are playing baseball, a scene that continues to advance both their characters.

What’s excellent about these scenes is that they waste no time getting told what must be told. We’re barely into the first 5 minutes of the film and we know a lot about Will: where he lives, who his best friend is, what his job is, what kind of mind he has, what he does for recreation. These all contribute to character development.

Soon, the theorem is revealed, but who did it? No one claims authority.

Out with the boys again, Will first goes to a baseball game where we are introduced to a guy who, apparently, beat up Will when he was in kindergarten; afterwards, we see them get some burgers. These scenes are also cross-cut with scenes at MIT, so what have are parallel scenes of Will and his marginal friends and the privileged academics of MIT. In other words, we see the world in which Will operates and the “unknown world” or the world he’s merely an observer.

Suddenly, they pass a group of guys and one of them is the guy who beat up Will so many years before. They stop the car and a fist fight ensues with Will finally getting revenge for his childhood beatings. We do, however, have to suspend our disbelief to believe that after all those years he never had an opportunity to kick this guy’s Will to beat the hell out of the guy and for the cops to show up.

Back to MIT where Lambeau sees that no one takes authority for the solution so he sets up a new problem and a new challenge.

Back to police headquarters with Will stating that his arraignment is the following week.

Back to MIT where Lambeau sees Will at the chalkboard; Lambeau tells him to quit writing graffiti and Will takes off, but not before telling him to “fuck off.” When Lambeau returns to the chalkboard he sees that Will was responsible for answering the new problem.

What is clearly being presented here is, as in Breaking Away, a “town” vs. “gown” kind of situation. That is, a relationship between the marginal, blue collar people who work hard for a living and live in South Boston vs. the privileged students at MIT and Harvard. That juxtaposition is a conflict in and of itself and is one that breeds conflict which is what we see in the next clip.

Harvard bar

Once again we see Will out with the boys, but rather than frequent their “home” bar, they decide to go to Harvard. This scene is a terrific scene in which Chucky tries to pick up one of the young women, Skyler (Minnie Driver) and gets hassled by a Harvard student who recognizes that Chucky’s not a student at all, but merely a working class kid in the “wrong” neighborhood. At that point, Will intervenes. What we discover about Will here is something in addition to his ability to work with numbers. It’s one thing to have this innate ability to deal with figures in a unique way; it’s something else to be able to read whatever one reads and “integrate” that knowledge. Whereas the Harvard student has merely memorized passages and repeated them, Will has integrated what he’s learned. That’s a difference between knowledge and nominalism. By doing what he does, Will does three things:

  1. he reverses the intellectual humiliation that the Harvard student wanted to inflict on Chucky
  2. he intimidates the student so that he backs out of a potential fight and
  3. he impresses Skyler who sees something different about Will

Skyler ends the scene by giving Will her phone number and the sequence is finished when Will flashes her telephone number to the student.

Of course, we have to suspend our disbelief once again in that we have to believe that Will’s genius has never been recognized before. Clearly, he went to high school and, clearly, there had to have been a math teacher there who recognized his talents; however, we buy into his character because he’s convincing and because we want to believe that he’s somehow been overlooked if not ignored.

Lambeau then goes on a mission to find out who Will is. He finds out, then finds him at the arraignment at which time we find out a number of other things about Will.

Will in court, Will & Skyler, Lambeau and Will

It’s revealed that he’s been accused of assault, auto theft, mayhem, etc. and that he’s been in Foster Homes and has been abused. But in every case he’s defended himself and every case has been overturned; however, this time is different since Will hit a cop and because of that violation is sent to jail. Just how Lambeau found out where Will would be is another mystery, but we buy it just the same. But we also see a continuation of character development in what the judge says about Will. In a layering of his past we discover: his previous crimes, his victimization of abandonment, his abuse. All of these layers contribute to completing his character. From jail he calls Skyler and asks if she’s got some legal connections which leads us to the next scene with Lambeau.

This is an interesting scene because it really does several things:

  1. It is Will’s call to adventure (a chance offering)
  2. It shows him as a reluctant hero (studying math, he’ll consider; therapy, he won’t) and
  3. It offers him the potential of a mentor (Lambeau)

If Will agrees to what the Court has offered, he’s free to leave, but Will isn’t stupid. He obvious takes Lambeau’s offer in order to get out of jail, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to cooperate. What ensues are two scenes in which Will essentially “bullshits” his way through the therapy sessions; however, his actions are not irrelevant. He’s therapy resistant for a number of reasons not the least of which is the fact he doesn’t want to reveal any part of himself to anyone else. He knows that and we know that. So it’s yet one more layer to Will in creating an entire picture of who he is as a character.

Frustrated beyond all reason, Lambeau tries to think who might help Will and that’s when Sean (Robin Williams) is approached. While Lambeau tries to convince Sean to take Will on, we see Will, once again, hanging out with the boys. These cuts between Will’s “mentors” and Will’s home boys are significant because we see those situations in which Will is most comfortable and how his character alters when he’s with his friends and when he’s with “others.” This character trait is never more revealing than when he meets Sean for the first time.

Sean-Will meeting

It’s clear by this point that Sean, not Lambeau, is going to be Will’s mentor and, presumably, he is going to put him on the “right path.” What’s interesting about this relationship is that Will is going to help put Sean on the right path as well. This mentoring relationship is a bit different in that regard. Yes, there is a mentor, actually two: Lambeau mentors Will (or at least tries to) on a practical and intellectual level; Sean mentors Will on an emotional one. What we discover is that Will, the intellectual, dismisses Lambeau’s help, but Will, the emotional cripple, embraces Sean’s help. On the former level, Will needs no help; on the latter level, he needs quite a bit of help. But Will can’t do that alone. He can’t get in touch with his emotional side with only Sean’s help. He desperately needs Skyler.

Will & Skyler: the backstory

On a date, the two characters reveal more of their backstory and we get to see how these two characters “mesh.” Skyler’s strength, beauty, and emotional resilience mesh with Will’s need for those things in a woman. He knows he’s intellectually superior to her, so that’s not what he needs from her. He needs some kind of emotional understanding, but, at the same time, he fears any kind of emotional commitment. This scene is followed by Will’s 2nd meeting with Sean in which Sean does all the talking and essentially calls Will’s bluff by confronting the main issue (i.e. Will protects his emotions through his intellect) and then challenges him by saying “it’s your move.” End of session.

In several quick scenes, we see Will get picked up Chucky, call Skyler, but hangs up without speaking, and goes out with the boys. Once again, the scenes tend to focus on character. Once again he “bullshits” his friends by saying he got a “wrong number,” but, in fact, he’s having second thoughts about Skyler since that would mean commitment and commitment means revealing more of oneself, of allowing a veritable stranger into the domain of his protective environment.

In his 3rd meeting with Sean, an hour goes by without anything being said. Lambeau seems worried about that. Their 4th session appears to be heading in the same direction when Will finally talks.

Sean & Will #5: Bosox

The true breakthrough between them occurs when Sean talks about the fact that his wife used to fart in her sleep. That exchange humanizes Sean in Will’s eyes, because they can both laugh about it. But it also allows Sean to work off that admission as a point of departure to illustrate intimacy between people who love each other so that the notions of love and intimacy become the foci of the scene. It’s not coincidental, then, that subsequent scene has Will and Skyler in bed together and the scenes that follow that have the two of them talking more and more about each other’s past. In their 6th session, Sean and Will recount the time Sean met his wife and that it was the same day as the sixth game of the ’75 World Series in which Sean gave his tickets away to be with his newly discovered sweetheart.

Clearly, the scene focuses on choices. Choices that a person has to make in one’s life. For Sean, the choice to forego the baseball game to be with the woman he loved, was no choice at all and Sean’s decision not to go to the game offers Will an additional insight into himself so it’s no coincidence that the next scene has Will and Skyler in bed together at which point she says she won’t sleep with him again until she gets to meet his friends. There’s a momentary hesitation on Will’s part because the moment he lets her meet his friends, he lets her into his world. To let her into his world is to share an intimacy that he’s reluctant to do.

Skyler, Will & friends at the tavern

Finally out with the boys, Skyler tells a joke that’s even dirtier than the jokes Will’s friends tell, but the scene is integral for a number of reasons:

  1. It shows that she can be “one of the boys”
  2. It shows how fond Will is becoming of Skyler and
  3. It prepares us for a conflictual situation since she wants to meet his family, a family he doesn’t have and which he’s lied about

The following scene has Lambeau and Sean discussing Will’s future. There is a conflict between the two of them that apparently stems from their history together and one can see how each of them has his own perspective on what is best for Will’s future. In the end, however, Lambeau tells Sean that he already set up an interview up for Will and in the following scene we see that it’s not Will who shows up for the interview, but Chucky, who turns the situation into a comedic moment by pretending to be Will and fleecing the interviewers of $70 in cash. The fact Will sends Chucky only validates who his real mentor is: Sean. In fact, he’s constantly denying Lambeau’s assistance and sending Chucky to the interview only validates his lack of respect for Lambeau and Lambeau’s world.

The next two scenes are very revealing in terms of character development because they are very climactic. Skyler needs to study organic chemistry, but Will says he’ll help. She refuses, but Will can’t take no for an answer and returns to her room with the answer to her problems. They go out and then return to her room.

Will & Skyler: the truth

In a re-enactment of the cliché “you only hurt the one you love” Skyler asks Will to leave with her for California. He hesitates. An argument ensues in which Will tells Skyler the truth; that is, he tells her he doesn’t love her and promptly walks out. Torn between his love for her and revealing the truth about his life, he reveals the truth, but can’t deal with the consequences so he leaves chooses to abandon love and walks home alone.

We next find Will in Lambeau’s office and in a confrontational scene he basically tells Lambeau that being with him is a “waste of time” since everything he does in math is easy and not challenging. The subtext to that scene is that there’s no risk involved in math; however, he’s also not able to take a risk at true intimacy either as evinced by the previous scene. Will walks out on Lambeau and returns, naturally, to be with the boys. What’s unique about this situation is that Will is caught in between the normal and the unknown worlds. In previous quests we’ve seen the hero leave the ordinary world and enter the unknown world. In this case, he doesn’t truly leave, but, in a way, straddles both worlds refusing, at this point, to accept either one.

What follows is a job interview at which Will does attend and which becomes a very clever segway.

NSA Interview / Sean segway

Not only does the scene play as both an answer to the interviewer’s question, but plays as an answer to one of Sean’s questions: what do you really want to do? The scene has Will presumably answering one of the interviewer’s questions, but by the end of the scene we see he’s actually answering one of Sean’s questions.

Will equivocates and that equivocation forces Sean to say “playtime is over” and eventually kicks Will out of his office. This scene is highly reminiscent of the scene in Ordinary People in which Berger says almost the same thing to Conrad. Whether it was “borrowed” from Ordinary People or not is irrelevant, the issue is that Sean can now do and say those things to Will because Will is “captured.” That is, Sean has more control of Will’s confidence at this point and knows more about his psychological matrix than anyone else. Sean won’t stand for Will’s equivocation and that’s why he kicks him out.

The scene that follows is revealing as well. It’s the last scene between Skyler and Will and works quite effectively in relation to Will’s character.

Will & Skyler: The kiss off

Skyler is about to leave for California. Skyler, who is emotionally more healthy than Will, has no trouble in saying the words, “I love you” over the phone. Will’s answer is: “Take care.” But there’s a subtext to that comment. For most women, it is easy to say “I love you” if, in fact, one is in love. For men, especially men who live by their intellect, it is not easy to say that, instead, they look for a euphemism and that euphemism is “take care.” One shouldn’t be led to believe that Will doesn’t care or is not in love. To the contrary, for him to have gone to the airport would have been totally out of character and that’s what makes the scene work so effectively. While she’s on her way to California, he’s sitting by the Charles River pondering what to do next. Will could not leave Boston because Skyler wanted him to. That would go against his character grain. Will has to make the decision on his own. He has to come to terms with “what he wants to do.” It also prepares us for the scene of permission that comes later. This was a very clever scene and one that had to be there.

The following scene has Will working construction juxtaposed with another scene with Lambeau stating that Will hasn’t shown up for a meeting with Sean and that, to him, is problematic since it jeopardizes his probation.

What follows that scene is the permission scene I referred to with Chucky in which Chucky essentially gives Will permission to be the person he’s supposed to be.

Will & Chucky

In this scene, Chucky basically tells Will he’s wasting his life in Boston and the key line is Chucky’s admission that nothing would make him smile more than if he knocked at Will’s door and Will didn’t answer. That line in and of itself permits Will to leave. The permission could not have come from Lambeau or Sean or any of his other friends. It had to come from Chucky.

What follows is another confrontation between Lambeau and Sean over Will’s future, but that scene is not as important as the 7th meeting between Sean and Will.

Sean & Will: penultimate meeting

This scene is also highly reminiscent of the final Conrad-Berger scene in Ordinary People in which Berger, sensing Conrad is at his most vulnerable, knows that he must get him to emote now or never. Sean senses the same thing. It’s now or never. Unless Will’s emotional barrier can be broken, unless Conrad can overcome his guilt, just as Will must overcome his own guilt feelings for being abused, there can be no recovery and no chance to move on with his life.

Chucky has given Will permission to leave and Sean has given Will permission to cry. With those two things in hand, we find Will on the subway alone, pondering his future. The next day he goes in for an interview presumably arranged by Lambeau and then we see him return to Sean’s office for the 8th and final time.

In the final meeting with Sean, Will discovers that Sean is leaving too. Will has traveled the road of trials, has crossed the threshold and has returned a different person. Sean’s role as mentor has been completed and there’s nothing left for him to accomplish. Just as Will is now a free man, so is Sean. They hug, Will leaves.

So it is not serendipitous that the boys give Will a car for his 21st birthday since the car is their way of saying: “We’ve given you permission to leave, now we’ve given you the means.” What follows is a last meeting between Sean and Lambeau who resolve their own differences.

The final sequence of scenes is worth noting since it neatly ties up everything. There are cross-cuts of Sean packing up his apartment, Will showing up and leaving Sean a note, Chucky and the boys at Will’s house. Chucky knocks on Will’s door, but Will doesn’t answer. Sean retrieves the note that indicates Will is making a choice between the job offer and the woman he loves, which is both an allusion to the choice Sean talked about earlier and the same words he used. Chucky realizes Will isn’t there and he gives us the smile he alluded to earlier.

The final shot is Will on the highway heading west and that shot links us with the beginning. Just as Chucky drives up to pick up Will at the beginning, Will is driving to pick up Skyler at the end. In terms of Will’s character arc, it’s clear. In the beginning Will is arrogant, cocky, protective of his emotions. In the end, he’s responsible, emotional, in love.

This brings up the notion of conflict. There appears to be two types of conflict in dramatic scripts with the attendant degrees of such: positive conflict and neutral conflict. Neutral conflict produces no positive character development for the hero-protagonist. In other words, neutral conflict between and among characters has no relative significance in determining the growth of the hero-protagonist nor is it important in resolving the plot. On the other hand, positive conflict is conflict that may eventually leads to resolution and which contributes to character growth. What’s instrumental about positive conflict is that it really carries the character through the story line. Likewise, the same thing holds for Will Hunting and if we look at the conflict chart we get the following:

GOOD WILL HUNTING

Character/Conflict chart

WILL:

LAMBEAU(+)

SEAN(+)

SKYLER(+)

CHUCKY(+)

Will is in positive conflict with Lambeau. Even though Lambeau tries to befriend Will, Will is constantly in conflict with Lambeau and in the end Lambeau’s influence is negative as witnessed by the scene in which Will walks out on Lambeau as the latter is on his knees. Will is also in conflict with himself. At the outset it seems as if it will be a negative conflict, unresolvable, but it turns out to be positive conflict with himself in that he changes.

Sean is in positive conflict with Will, because Sean will be instrumental in altering Will’s arc just as Raymond alters Charlie Babbitt’s arc and Berger alters Conrad’s arc.

Lambeau is in positive conflict with Sean because the two of them have to disagree with each other in terms of Will’s best interest.

Chucky is in positive conflict with Will even though the two might have disagreements. After all, they’re dear friends and that kind of conflict is understandable among friends.

Skyler is in positive conflict with Will even when he refuses to see her off at the airport and she has no conflict with any of the boys.