One of the most powerful scenes in “Good Will Hunting” is the moment when the psychiatrist (RobinWilliams) corners Will (Matt Damon) saying the simple phrase: “It’s not your fault.” Again and again, until Damon breaks down sobbing. Ias first it is as if those words are blows, lashes, and Damon recoils, responds with anger,and then fear, begging him to stop. Williams comes closer and closer, ultimately wrapping his arms around Damon. “It’s not your fault,” he says, again, and we see all of the blocked emotions come boiling up out of Damon, anger giving way to fear, then fear to hope, and then the tears, and on the other side of them…a glimpse of heaven.
It is the film’s emotional climax, and if you surrender to it, it is as powerful as a sledge-hammer to the heart.
It’s not your fault.
A reader recently said that the lack of a “villain” was one of “Good Will Hunting”s strengths. Agreed–there were forces of opposition, but no real “bad guys” on screen.
And yet…opposition is every scene. It is the warp and woof (whatever the heck that means) of drama, and without it, your scene lies dead on the page or the stage. And we can actually examine this scene from the perspective of a villain by using a simplistic story pattern, say the one taught by Dwight Swain in “Techniques of the Selling Writer.”
Situation, Character, Objective, Opponent, Disaster.
Here’s that pattern with a black-and-white “villain”, let’s say in the 1964 movie “Goldfinger”:
Situation: when large amounts of gold are being smuggled across Europe
Character: Secret Agent 007 James Bond
Objective: Is assigned to stop the leakage. But little does he know that his suspect
Opponent: Super-industrialist Auric Goldfinger
Disaster: Is really only smuggling gold to finance his real operation, the destruction of Fort Knox with an atom bomb.
Lining up your “elements” like this simplifies things drastically, and suggests scenes and plot-twists galore.
But what happens with a movie with real living breathing characters (or at least better simulations thereof?) In real life, we rarely get preening, taunting, “monologuing” villains. We have human beings, doing the best they can with the resources they have, and sometimes making terrible mistakes. Look around…most people hurt themselves far more than they ever hurt others. While it is comforting to place the locus of evil outside ourselves, it is also a cop-out.
Will Hunting’s greatest “villain” was himself, his own emotions. His own actions created his adult pain.
But…the roots of adulthood are found in childhood. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” Walt Whitman wrote, in a poem which touches on the fact that our earliest experiences are always with us. Will Hunting’s early life was rejection and abuse. He was shuttled from home to home. His friendship with his blue-collar friends was the very first real family he’d ever known, the place he feels safe. But that castle has become a prison, and a man of his intellect will chaff and rot under the stricture. His early life, the fear and terror of having no agency, no control, and being abused by the very people who should have provided protection, were a snarl he could not unwind alone.
“The instructions on how to get out of the box are written on the outside of the box.”
So, with that perspective, let’s try to apply that simple plot structure to a complex film:
Situation: When faced with the task to “adult” (connect with a good woman who is his natural mate)
Character: neurotic genius Will Hunting
Objective: Has to find a way to finish maturing, enter the adult world of responsibility and contribution and self-discovery. But standing in his way is the internalized false image created by
Opponent: Everyone who ever hurt, abandoned, painfully programmed him as a child
Disaster: Creating a false self image so smart, so strong, that it will take an entire tribe of loving support to dismantle it.
Seen this way, we can easily see the scenes that have to be written:
- Introduction of his basic day-to-day world
- Introduction of his eventual allies
- Establish both his brilliance and self-destructive tendencies
- CHANGE HIS WORLD: introduce something new, namely the woman he will love enough to risk “dying” (killing the false self image) for.
We know that there will be a series of scenes in which the stakes will grow higher and higher, rejection of chances for growth, a delicate dance of fear and love, and a SERIES of confrontations what will answer “who am I?” and “what is true?” at deeper and deeper levels until the past is thrown away, and a man capable of love, independence, and accepting his own value are revealed.
NOTE: there would be other versions of this film. Depressing versions. Where for some reason he is unable to take “the leap of faith” and devolves back to his old life–diminished. Why? BECAUSE HE WILL HAVE GLIMPSED SALVATION.
If you cannot see the light, no one can blame you for not swimming to shore. You can blame the darkness as you drown. But if you SEE the light, and refuse to swim toward it? You have made a decision, and on some level…you know it.
The first is death
The second, damnation.
THIS is why it is so hard to get people to open their eyes and see inconvenient truths. Because if you SEE it, you have to act. And…most will.
But you have to move past the anger, past the fear which supports it, and touch the love within. The hope, and possibility. Great sex with someone who loves you can do that, bet your bottom dollar.
Napoleon Hill in “Think And Grow Rich” speaks of the power “Love X Faith X Sex.” Wow. KILLER combination. It blows your mind, and points the way toward a new set of possibilities, not a mere “improvement” over what has gone before but something NEW.
The first time you experience that, the pattern of life gets clearer, and suddenly you understand the world differently. Not just “better” but actually DIFFERENTLY. THAT is what Minnie Driver did to him in that movie.
She said: I am a potential future. I would be your mate. Strive with you. Bear your children. Watch your back. Give you EVERYTHING a woman can.
But you must throw off your delusions. Be the Lion you can be, to match my Lioness. Protect and serve the family. Watch my back. Give me EVERYTHING you have.
No games. Playtime is over.
Can you step up?
If he does, he gets much more than a wife and partner. HE GETS HIMSELF. His true self. Further, he gets to “defeat” the “villains” who programmed him with pain and fear.
With a two-dimensional story, the best line is likely to be something said by a hero strapped to a laser table: “do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond…I expect you to die!”
With a deeper story, that line is also about death, but it is: “It’s not your fault.” Damon is afraid, angry, in tears, because his entire personae has been built around the belief that it IS his fault. That he IS guilty, and unworthy of love and happiness. To accept the new live, he must kill his old self.
“Its not your fault” said to the new self is “come to life!”
But to the old self it is, really, “I expect you to die.”
Only the promise of love, and hope, and self-discovery…and the support of friends and mentors and lovers ALL COMBINED were enough to shatter those chains for Will Hunting.
But the path he followed is available to anyone willing to kill their self-image to gain their actual life. Or…to love more than they fear.