Movie Plot Breakdown: Good Will Hunting

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

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I know I’m not the first to break down this movie, but I watched it last night with my developmental editor frequency set to on and I wanted to take a crack at it.

This movie is entirely character driven. That means the conflict comes from within the main character. The story shows how he succeeds or fails to change. He sees change as a very real danger even as he’s pushed closer and closer to emotions he doesn’t want to face.

Introduction to Will Hunting (Matt Damon)

He’s in his room surrounded by books, reading and learning voraciously. This opening image has greater significance in the bar scene when Will enters a battle of smarts against a pretentious college student.

Additional observations: Will is brilliant when it comes to learning, but his assumptions and judgments about other people are sometimes his misguided attempt at original thinking. We see how his cocky intellect and assumptions, while impressive, hurt other people later on.

Anyway, Will works as a janitor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's between two worlds: the blue-collar working class he grew up in and the hum of trust-fund students and brilliant educators. As we learn later, the world holds no boundaries for Will. He goes and does as he pleases, pulling students' and professors' underpants over their smart pompous heads when he feels threatened (not literally, of course).

Will’s personal group of friends are loud, crass, and violent, which draws contrast even more to the upper crust college environment he works in. With his friends he feels the safest.

Inciting Incident

Professor Lambeau (Skarsgard) catches Will after hours writing on the chalkboard where he had posted a math equation for his students to solve. After failing to catch up with Will (thinking Will was ruining the board) Lambeau realizes he solved the math problem.

Soon after, Will assaults some jerks in his neighborhood and despite his well-articulated defense in court, the judge is not giving him a break this time.

Additional notes: The court hearing cleverly inserts Will’s backstory of him growing up in foster homes and his police record of theft and vandalism. Viewers now understand more about Will and no conflict was sacrificed between characters to do it.

Lock in/Doorway One (End of Act 1)

Lambeau gives Will a choice: he can remain in jail or he can join Lambeau in solving math equations on the condition that he talks to a therapist. Will steps through that “doorway of no return,” as James Scott Bell puts it, and accepts Lambeau’s offer. Will knows he cannot go back to his life as it once was; he only has two choices and he doesn’t want to stay in jail.

Additional notes: Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) runs parallel to Will Hunting throughout the story. They both grew up in South Boston and they both have a rough history. In their combative therapy sessions, they frequently hold a mirror up to each other, throwing each other's points back in their faces.

Midpoint

This midpoint is like a fake victory for Will. His relationship with Skylar (Minnie Driver) progresses as does his friendship with Sean. However, conflict sharpens when Will lies about his life to Skylar because he’s afraid she won’t like the real him. We sense upcoming trouble and consequences.

Later when Will is too afraid to return Skylar's love, his downward spiral begins. Skylar leaves for California to continue her education and Will’s demons (within himself) close in. Additionally, he begins to resist Sean's discussions and Lambeau's job meetings with very exclusive organizations that would benefit from his mathematical gift..

Main Culmination/Doorway Two (End of Act 2)

So who wakes Will up? Someone he trusts. Not Skylar or Sean or Lambeau, but his friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck). He tells Will, “You owe me,” me as in normal people. If Chuckie had the talent Will did, he wouldn’t be a scared idiot. He’d take his talent and have the guts to explore what else is out there.

Additional notes: From my perspective, the final battle is an emotional one between Sean and Will when they connect over their abusive pasts. Sean says over and over, “It’s not your fault” until Will stops bullshitting and truly faces his vulnerabilities.

Throughout the story, these two characters are not only parallel, but strong allies. And because these allies butted heads most of the time, it made for an entertaining addition to the conflict.

Third Act Twist (Hero’s Last Test)

It seems like the resolution is Will accepting a job from one of Lambeau’s contacts. But for me, the real twist is when he sacrifices that opportunity to go after Skylar. “I had to go see about a girl.” A line that mimic’s Sean’s personal experience when Sean had missed his chance to see the World Series so he could pursue a woman who had later become his wife, the love of his life.

Additional notes: Sean had his own resolution. He stopped putting his life on hold since his wife’s death and decides to travel around the world.

So that’s it! I hope you liked this plot breakdown and my additional observations. Do you find movies helpful when you go to line up plot points in your own story?