Good Will Hunting and the Artist’s Journey
First, let me say thanks to everybody who stuck with these blog posts through the serialization of The Artist’s Journey. And a special thanks to everybody who actually ordered the book. I hope it’s helpful.
But let’s get to Good Will Hunting. I watched the movie for probably the tenth time on TV a few nights ago. I thought, Wow, this is the Hero’s Journey/Artist’s Journey exactly.
Do you remember the movie? (It came out in 1997 and launched Matt Damon’s and Ben Affleck’s careers. As co-writers they won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year.)
Here’s a quick recap:
Matt Damon is Will Hunting, a “wicked smart” prodigy at math. We know this because he solves with ease a problem that has been stumping the best minds at M.I.T.
But Will is a janitor. He works at the university with a mop and a floor buffing machine.
And he solves the problem anonymously. Will posts his solution on a public board in the hallway of the Math Department, but he doesn’t sign his name or leave any indication that he is the genius responsible.
Talk about “Refusal of the Call.”
Further, Will is a fierce adherent of the blue-collar, South Boston Irish street ethic of being a tough, chip-on-his-shoulder, bar-brawling kid.
In other words, he has buried his gift beneath layers of denial.
His artist’s-journey-in-potential is so far underground Will doesn’t even know it’s there.
Then two things happen.
- Will is compelled into psychotherapy with Dr. Sean Maquire (Robin Williams) as his down-to-earth, just-as-tough-as-he-is shrink.
- Will meets the beautiful, brainy Harvard undergrad Skylar (Minnie Driver) and falls for her.
Both these characters represent models and mentors that Will could follow to initiate his passage out of denial. They see his gift and passionately encourage him to embrace it.
But Will will have none of it.
In hero’s journey terms, Will is smack in the middle of the ordeal of initiation (or self-initiation).
The school year ends. Skylar heads cross-country to Stanford Medical School. Will breaks up with her.
He knows what he should do.
He can see the end of his hero’s journey and the start of his artist’s journey. They’re staring him in the face, thanks to Sean and Skylar.
But he’s stuck in the South Boston code of street honor.
He can’t and won’t break free.
Ben Affleck plays Will’s Southie best bud Chuckie. Chuckie knows Will better than he knows himself. One morning, in the most powerful scene in a movie packed with powerful scenes, Chuckie unloads on his friend.
The scene takes place beside a pickup truck with the pals’ hard hats sitting on the hood and the construction project they’re laboring on in the background. Both drink beers from cans as the scene unfolds.
Chuckie asks Will what happened to his girl. Meaning Skylar.
“She left for California,” says Will. “Medical school. A week ago.”
The pals talks for a few more beats. Will says he has no plans to follow Skylar (i.e. pursue his own destiny.) Instead, he says, his intention is to stay here in Southie. He’ll keep hanging with his buds, get married eventually, have kids, take them to ball games and do everything over the next twenty years that Will and Chuckie have always done.
Look, you’re my best friend, so don’t take this the wrong way.
But in twenty years, if you’re still livin’ here, comin’ over to my house
to watch the Patriots games, still workin’ construction, I’ll f**kin’ kill
you. That’s not a threat, that’s a fact. I’ll f**kin’ kill you.
What the f**k are you talkin’ about?
Look, you got somethin’ that none of us—
Oh, come on! Why is it always this, I mean, I f**kin’ owe it to myself
to do this or that? What if I don’t want to?
No. No, no, no. No, f**k you. You don’t owe it to yourself. You owe it
to me. ‘Cause tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be fifty. And I’ll
still be doing this shit. And that’s all right, that’s fine. I mean, you’re
sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a pussy to
cash it in. And that’s bullshit. `Cause I’d do anything to f**kin’ have
what you got. So would any of these f**kin’ guys. It’d be an insult to
us if you’re still here in twenty years. Hanging around here is a
f**kin’ waste of your time.
You don’t know that.
No. You don’t know that.
Oh, I don’t know that. Let me tell you what I do know. Every day
I come by to pick you up. And we go out we have a few drinks and
a few laughs, and it’s great. But you know what the best part of my
day is? It’s for about ten seconds from when I pull up to the curb to
when I get to your door. Because I think maybe I’ll get up there and
I’ll knock on the door and you won’t be there. No goodbye, no see
you later, no nothin’. Just left. I don’t know much, but I know that.
A few more scenes intervene and then we see Chuckie and his buds pull up behind Will’s house in their beat-up cruiser. It’s early. The guys are picking Will up for work, just like every other morning.
Only this time when Chuckie knocks, Will is gone.
Cut up the interstate and Will’s equally beat-up Chevy Nova, heading west for California and Skylar.
In other words, Will’s hero’s journey has ended.
His artist’s journey is about to begin.
The thing about movies (and novels too sometimes) is they end when the hero’s journey ends.
The artist’s journey is relegated to what happens after FADE OUT. After The End. After Happily Ever After.
Why, I wonder.
I suspect it’s because the artist’s journey is not cinematic. It’s internal. In Will’s case it’s him continuing his evolution as a mathematician, which is . . . what? A guy in an academic setting toiling over formulas and equations.
That’s my life.
And it’s yours too.
The hero’s journey is dramatic. It’s theatrical. It makes a great movie or a novel.
But for Will Hunting, and for you and me, the real journey starts when that Chevy Nova makes it to California.