Drink up, baby, stay up all night
Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant’s 1997 critical darling, is perhaps best known for the performances of Matt Damon and Robin Williams. But there’s another star in the film that you won’t see anywhere on screen during its runtime—lo-fi icon Elliott Smith. Of the five songs Smith contributed to the film’s soundtrack, one—”Miss Misery”—was even nominated for an Academy Award.
Smith’s tunes lend themselves almost too well to the character of Will Hunting, juxtaposing his inner demons with his aspirations in a quietly beautiful sonic mess. In a sense, Smith’s accompaniment develops Hunting’s character in ways that the kinetic action of film—the dialogue and cinematography—can’t.
With the exception of “Miss Misery,” all of Smith’s songs for the film come from 1997’s Either/Or album. Acoustic and minimalist, the album shares a title with Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s first published work, which is based on the dichotomies of existentialism—aesthetics and ethics, subjectivity and objectivity. These dichotomies are reappropriated for Smith’s album, which is filled with thematic contrasts of love and loss, inspiration and action—and this is exactly what makes the music relevant to Will Hunting’s character. As opposed to dealing with existentialism in academically philosophical terms, Smith writes about the everyday struggles of the “waster.”
Inherently talented but incapable of accepting it, Hunting works a janitorial job in South Boston in spite of being capable of much more. His decision to solve near-impossible maths equations after all of the professors and students have gone home makes him a sort of phantom academic, which is something that he evidently yearns for subconsciously. Hunting, however, prefers to drink with friends and shun his abilities, feeling that academia is not for him—that he doesn’t deserve it. Will’s fear prevents him from ever taking action in public, but his quiet will drives him to do so in private, hoping that someone will notice and force him to overcome his self-imposed setbacks.
Smith’s track Between The Bars appears twice in the film—once as an orchestral version of the song and then again in its full glory. While the lyrics may seem to be most relevant to Hunting’s relationship with Harvard graduate Skylar, they are in fact much more in line with his psychological state.
Drink up, baby, stay up all night,
With the things you could do, you won’t but you might.
The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see.
The promises you’ll only make.
The idea of “won’t but you might” is indicative of Hunting’s innate desire to recognize the potential he’ll never see, the promises he makes to himself over and over again without ever intending to make good on them. The entire lyrical body represents an inner conflict waging between several selves, all of which lose out to the overbearing presence of the externalized hard Hunting that keeps them at bay. They “push and shove and won’t bend to (his) will”—that is, until psychiatrist Sean Maguire—a role for which Robin Williams won Best Supporting Actor—comes along to help Will recognize that his potential is in itself deserving of opportunity. The renowned “it’s not your fault” scene shows Sean breaking down Will’s hard exterior, allowing everything inside to come spilling out. This catharsis is what ultimately remedies the side of Will that is directly tied to Smith’s Between The Bars.
After Between The Bars, Smith’s Say Yes plays. Much more optimistic in tone yet still skeptical, Say Yes is quietly but sincerely happy. The guitar bounces between root notes and full chords, resembling a spring in the step of the singer, and even the line “situations get fucked up and turned around sooner or later” is resolved with a playful cadence and sweet guitar melody. Say Yes concludes with the lines “I’m in love with the world/ through the eyes of a girl/ that’s still around the morning after.” In many ways, this is indicative of newfound hope found in an unlikely place, which can be applied to Hunting’s transition into academia and thriving relationship with Skylar. Say Yes offers a bridge from nihilism to purpose, and the lyrics of the song highlight Will’s crossing.
The infamous ending of Good Will Hunting sees Will’s best friend Chuckie, portrayed by Ben Affleck, arrive at Will’s house to see that he has left without saying goodbye. Chuckie, although obviously hurt, is relieved to see that his friend made a decision that was right for him. The persona of Will sung into the film by Smith is a part of his friend that he’s more than happy to say goodbye to. Although the future isn’t explicitly dealt with at the film’s denouement, this parting is quite clearly symbolic. Chuckie hasn’t lost his best friend—his best friend has gained himself. Will passes on a job offer to go to Skylar, now in California, and this cues Smith’s Miss Misery.
Miss Misery is by no means a happy tune—sombre in tone and lyrical content, the song features descriptions of hangovers, torn up tickets, and a comedy lead who vanishes into oblivion. What’s important here, though, is that these things are the counterfactuals of Will Hunting’s trajectory. Although the initial verses resemble the Will Hunting introduced at the beginning of the film, the lyrical refrain of “but it’s alright, ‘cos some enchanted night I’ll be with you” is interwoven throughout the song, which culminates in an optimistic resolution. This last line is the line that distinguishes Will’s fate from the potential tragedy of living a lie. As he sets out for California, he approaches “some enchanted night”—the night before a brighter tomorrow.