Why the bar scene in ‘Good Will Hunting’ deserves more recognition

"My boy's wicked smart."

I have a hard time choosing my favourite movies. Sure, it’s a first world problem. In the grand scheme of things, it’s probably not a big deal. But for some reason, I treat this select grouping of films with the kind of attention Academy critics give to Best Picture nominees. Maybe it’s because these are my best pictures, the ones I return to time and again and somehow never tire of watching. It’s an exclusive club that I am constantly reordering, revising and rewriting to make sure every film has earned its place. At this point, I’m pretty content with where my list is at. 

Some films are there for nostalgia. Some make the list based on how many repeat viewings I’ve enjoyed. And then there are those that I’m sold on by a single character, or maybe just one scene, or even a certain line delivered a specific way. One of those films is Good Will Hunting

The scene? I think you know the one.

Will (Matt Damon) is a genius. Essentially, that’s the premise of the film. He’s made some bad choices, been dealt a heavy hand in terms of his circumstances in life, and all the while his mind has operated on a level that is too often incorrectly associated solely with those outside of his socio-economic bracket. His relationship with Sean (Robin Williams), a psychologist who helps Will through a crisis, forms one of the most memorable aspects of the film and is rightly revered by fans and critics alike. 

But for today, the scene I want to talk about isn’t one of the many iconic moments between Damon and Williams. Instead, it’s a simple interaction in a bar that I would be content to watch on repeat forever.

When Will and his closest friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) decide to stop by a Harvard bar one night, Chuckie approaches two women in an attempt to make a good impression. The second-hand embarrassment is pretty heavy right from the start, with Chuckie pretending he attended class with the students. The lie is completely transparent. He’s trying to be charming, but it’s not exactly working. This is when a Harvard student interrupts the conversation and the heart of the scene is brought to life. 

This guy, who looks and acts like the stereotype he lives up to, presses Chuckie for more information about the class. Skylar (Minnie Driver) tells the guy to leave, but to no avail. Chuckie elaborates, even going so far as to describe the work as “elementary.” Harvard Guy loves it. It’s his moment to prove what a pretentious know-it-all he is.

“I was hoping you might give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the southern colonies,” he asks Chuckie. “My contention is that prior to the revolutionary war, the economic modalities, especially in the southern colonies, could most aptly be characterised as agrarian pre-capital.”

That’s where Will comes in. He’s been watching his friend being humiliated, has let him fight his own battle, but has clocked the situation as it starts to rapidly get out of hand. Chuckie might not be a match for Harvard Guy, but Will has him beat every day of the week.

“Of course that’s your contention,” he says. “You’re a first year grad student.” 

Will knows what reading the guy is quoting. He knows what perspective he’ll take in his future coursework. And when the guy straight up plagiarises a passage in an attempt to pass it off as his own, Will calls him out on it. He puts him back in his place and offers to finish the conversation outside if the message hasn’t landed, which of course isn’t necessary. 

The fact that words were all it took to flatten a person who found it amusing to treat someone else as less than themselves simply because they hadn’t read as many books is so unbelievably satisfying. This scene is easily one of the most gratifying reactions to tension I’ve seen, both in the initial response and the final outcome. A physical altercation wasn’t necessary. There was no shouting or irrelevant insults or low blows that reduce your opinion of the protagonist. It was simply a battle of wits where one party was outclassed, outsmarted and utterly shut down by the other.

What’s so significant about this scene is that Will wouldn’t have picked a fight with this guy had he not been in the process of humiliating Chuckie. He wasn’t trying to show off how advanced his mind was. He wasn’t trying to prove himself. He was defending his best friend from one of the lowest forms of bullying and he did it with style.

When Harvard Guy walks away, Chuckie says, “How you like me now?” It’s his victory as much as Will’s. There doesn’t have to be a rivalry. There needn’t be a pointless moment of, “I could’ve handled that.” It’s evidence of the respect and loyalty that comes with a strong friendship, and it plays out perfectly. 

The group leave the bar, but not before we’re given the unforgettable line of, “My boy’s wicked smart.” 

You’re telling me.

Image via Miramax.

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