Tag: Casey Affleck

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Therapy saves the day in this well-written and acted, but rather earnest drama

Director: Gus van Sant

Cast: Matt Damon (Will Hunting), Robin Williams (Dr Sean Maguire), Ben Affleck (Chuckie Sullivan), Stellan Skarsgård (Professor Gerald Lambeau), Minnie Driver (Skylar), Casey Affleck (Morgan O’Mally), Cole Hauser (Billy McBride), John Mighton (Tom), Scott Williams Winters (Clark)

Two unknowns, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, made a sensation in 1997 with their script for Good Will Hunting. It turned them into stars and the two youngest Oscar-winning screenwriters in history. Good Will Hunting is a heartfelt, very genuine film crammed with finely scripted scenes and speeches. It’s also an unashamed crowd-pleaser, a paean to friendship and opening your heart, all washed down with a bit of Hollywood-psychotherapy magic. It’s a basically familiar tale, told and performed with such energy that it made a huge impact on millions of viewers.

In Boston, orphan Will Hunting (Matt Damon) has a fiery temper and a rap sheet as long as your arm. He’s content shooting the breeze with best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck), but he is also a preternatural genius, an autodidact with a photographic memory able to solve complex theoretical problems in hundreds of fields. It’s why he effortlessly solves the impossible proof Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) pins up on a board at MIT, where Will works as a janitor. Lambeau is stunned, bailing out Will from his recent clash with the police – on condition he also sees a psychiatrist to resolve his anger management. Will reluctantly attends sessions with Lambeau’s old room-mate Dr Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a recent widower – and the two of them slowly grow a father-son bond, while Lambeau pushes Will to not waste his talents.

Good Will Hunting is directed with a sensitive intimacy by Gus van Sant, with the camera frequently placed in careful two-shot, medium and close-up to bring these characters up-close with the audience. It’s an emotional story of grief, unspoken rage and trauma – but it manages to largely not present these in a sentimental or overly manipulative way. It’s gentle, patient and tender with its characters, not shying away from their rough edges, with an empathy for their wounded hearts.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Will himself. Matt Damon gives a charismatic, emotionally committed performance, as utterly convincing in genius as he is a surly, fragile young man hiding emotional trauma. He’s charming and easy to root for. He takes down smarmy Harvard types with a barrage of erudite opinions, is often self-deprecating, fiercely loyal to his friends and categorically on the side of the little guy. But he’s also aggressive, rude and capable of violence. He gets into fights for no reason, arrogantly assumes he can understand everyone better than they can themselves, and uses his intelligence as a weapon to pin-point and apply pressure to weak points.

It’s what he does throughout the film, from launching attacks at prospective therapists (accusing an illustrious MIT professor of suppressed homosexuality and mockingly supplying a string of psychobabble cliches to another) to cruelly exposing the limits of Lambeau’s intellect (which the professor is all too aware of, having to work night and day to even touch Will’s starting point). He analyses and strips down insecurities with dazzling displays of verbiage. It’s funny when he recounts doing this to an NSA recruiter: it’s less so when he reduces girlfriend Skylar to tears as she tries to get close to him, cruelly breaking down her life and personality into digestible, cliched clumps.

It’s all about pain of course. Good Will Hunting is rooted in the familiar Hollywood cliché of inner pain only being “fixed” by therapy. As always in Hollywood, sessions start with confrontation and end with a tear-filled hug as breakthroughs (that in real life take years) are hit after a dozen sessions. Will of course is using his intelligence to fuel his defensiveness – abandoned and poorly treated throughout his childhood, he pushes people away before they can get to close and holds the few people he trusts as tightly as he can. He can’t believe people want to help or care for him: Lambeau must be jealous, Skylar must be lying about loving him, Dr Maguire must be a fool.

It’s Dr Maguire who sees the lost little boy under the domineering, intellectually aggressive, angry exterior. Robin Williams won a well-deserved Oscar for a part tailor-made to his strengths. Maguire is witty, eccentric, cuddly – but also, like many of William’s best parts, fragile, tender and kind. It’s a part that allows Williams to combine his emotive acting and comic fire: he can mix grief-filled reflections on the weeping sore that is the loss of his wife, with hilarious flights of fancy on her late night farting (yup that’s Damon laughing for real in those scenes). Maguire is no push-over though: he throttles Will when he goes too far mocking the memory of his wife and gets into furious arguments with Lambeau over their differing opinions on what’s best for Will.

That’s the film’s other major thread: male friendship. Will’s friendship with Chuckie is the film’s key romance, and Benn Affleck gives a generous, open-hearted performance (although one scene of fast-talking cool when Chuckie stands in for Will at a job interview feels like a scene purely written to give Affleck “a moment”). Both these guys are fiercely loyal to each other – but it’s Chuckie who knows Will is wasting gifts and opportunities he would die to have, and who loves his friend so much he wants him to leave. Refreshingly, the slacker friends aren’t holding Will back here (he’s doing that himself) – they care so much they are trying to push him away.

If the film has a weakness, it’s the romance plotline, which feels like a forced narrative requirement to give Will something to “earn”. Minnie Driver does a decent job as a spunky, cool Harvard student – the sort of dream girl who quotes poetry but also tells smutty gags to Will’s mates – but she feels like an end-of-the-rainbow reward. Their relationship is underwritten and she bends over backwards to forgive and reassure Will at every opportunity: my wife probably isn’t the only woman watching the scene where Will punches the wall next to Skylar’s head during an argument and felt that she probably needs to get the heck out. For all the film wants a grand romance, honestly the film would probably have been better if it had focused more on the friendship between Will and Chuckie (the true love of his life).

Good Will Hunting truthfully does little that’s original. Our hero struggles with his past, guilt, anger – but learns to become a better man through the magic, sympathetic ear of therapy. What makes it work is the confident writing, which never shies away from its hero’s unsympathetic qualities and the sensitive, low-key direction of van Sant (the film never uses crashing violin-like moments to overegg emotion). It’s also superbly acted across the board – Damon, Williams, Skarsgård, Affleck and Driver are all excellent. It’s a warm tribute to the power of friendship. In short it gives you a pleasant, engaging and easy-to-relate to story. And who doesn’t want that?

Manchester By the Sea (2016)

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck deal with terrible burdens in Manchester By the Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Cast: Casey Affleck (Lee Chandler), Lucas Hedges (Patrick Chandler), Michelle Williams (Randi), Kyle Chandler (Joe Chandler), Gretchen Mol (Elisa Chandler), CJ Wilson (George), Tate Donovan (Hockey coach), Kara Hayward (Silvie), Anna Baryshnikov (Sandy), Heather Burns (Jill), Matthew Broderick (Jeffrey)

There are many films that front and centre the catharsis of overcoming grief. You know the sort of thing: the feel-good story of someone dealing with the impact of crushing events to emerge renewed and with a certain level of acceptance for the hand that life has dealt them. It’s rare to have a film that takes a very different approach – for it to tackle grief and the impact it has as a never-ending burden on your life, like a companion that will stay with you forever but which you must accept will colour every moment for the rest of your life.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a quiet, inexpressive handyman in Boston who seems to be barely keeping under control a temper that explodes in the odd unprovoked barfight. Content to let his life drift away in a dead-end, poorly paid, job, Lee is summoned back to his family’s home in Manchester by the Sea, a coastal town in Massachusetts, after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) from a heart condition. Much to his surprise, he discovers that Joe has named him as the guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). But Lee has no intention of remaining in this forced parental role – or of staying in Manchester by the Sea, his former home until he suffered an unbearably tragic loss for which he blames himself.

Manchester by the Sea seems ripe for setting up as a conventional tale of grief. All the ingredients are there: the man who is thrown together with a young teenager, the terrible tragic background event that he can never forget, the bottled up emotions that seem to be crying out for a big “cathartic” moment where all those emotions can be let out, a possible father-son relationship developing that can lead to Lee re-engaging fully with the world… It’s a testament the film’s courage that it avoids nearly all of these completely. Instead it offers a picture of life’s tragedy that feels human, studied, earned and above all real.

For starters, Lee is consumed with grief – and is unable to move on from it. This becomes much easier for the viewer to understand once we are introduced to the reason for his tragic mood halfway through – although hints have been dropped in flashbacks that are brilliantly woven (seemingly at random, but in fact with great thought and planning) throughout the film, where he has a wife and three young children. Saying that, the horror of what actually happened – and the gut wrenching sense of personal responsibility that Lee feels – are truly chilling. Is it any wonder with all of this that Lee can’t or won’t (or both) allow himself to move on?  That he clearly believes grief is his “sentence” for his “crime”, which has so shaped his entire life? No it really isn’t.

Lonergan’s film (and his brilliant script, one of the sharpest, tenderest and most humane modern film scripts you will read, with all the depth of a fabulous novel) explores wonderfully the contours of this human situation. There are no easy answers, no real relief and no simple emotional release. Instead this film shows that grief and guilt – certainly on this scale – never go away, that although you allow yourself moments of happiness, the shadow of the past never really leaves.

This makes the story sound incredibly bleak, when in fact it really isn’t. Among the many triumphs of Lonergan’s film is how funny this is. This humour is not always black (though it is tinged in places) but comes from Lonergan’s Mike Leigh or Alan Bennettish ability to neatly observe some of the absurdities of human interaction and everyday conversation. He understands that the mundanity of the everyday can carry huge emotional and comedic force for people, because it stems from situations we can all (to certain degrees) experience and understand. It’s those moments of recognition as Lee and Patrick struggle to get on, or when Lee is brought low by sudden memories that really speak to the viewer, which make this such a profound and often engaging viewing experience. Not to mention that Lee’s often blunt plain speaking frequently raises a chuckle, not least due to Patrick’s often exasperated plea as to why he can’t be “normal”.

But then Lee isn’t normal – he’s carefully suppressed his inner feelings as a protection measure to stop him from exploding in self-destructive guilt. It’s a performance from Casey Affleck that might just be one for the ages: a surly, buttoned-down man of low-key aggression and impatience which covers a deep and abiding sense of guilt and shame that he can’t seem to put behind him. He’s superb, and the performance is all the more admirable for the bravery of how Affleck does not fall back on actorly tricks and emoting. Instead his performance throbs with unspoken pain.

Affleck is one of several superb performances. Lucas Hedges is a revelation as a son who can’t articulate his feelings about his father’s death and his resentment and pain around it. Hedges and Affleck spark off each other with great effect, with scenes that alternate between hilarity and raw pain. Michelle Williams is also sublime in a carefully underused part as Lee’s ex-wife. Williams shares one particular beautiful scene with Affleck – one tinged with fabulous notes of sadness and regret – that is nearly worth the price of admission alone. But no one puts a foot wrong here.

Lonergan’s film is a beautiful, heartfelt, funny and intensely moving piece of cinema. Beautifully filmed, with a sublime score (part classics, part new compositions by Lesley Barber) it never lies to the audience, never sentimentalises, but leaves you moved and enthralled. It’s so rare to see a film that feels so very trueto the difficulties and complexities of real life. A great film.

Triple 9 (2016)

An all-star cast fail to make Triple 9 a classic, or even a decent watch

Director John Hillcoat

Cast: Casey Affleck (Chris Allen), Anthony Mackie (Marcus Belmont), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Michael Atwood), Clifton Collins Jnr (Franco Rodriguez), Woody Harrelson (Jeffrey Allen), Aaron Paul (Gabe Welch), Kate Winslet (Irina Vlaslov), Gal Gadot (Elena Vlaslov), Norman Reedus (Russell Welch), Michael K Williams (Sweet Pea), Teresa Palmer (Michelle Allen)

Triple 9 that never gets anywhere near fulfilling its potential. You look at the cast and you think “Wow! That has got to be one of the films of the year! Right?” Wrong. Triple 9 is another journey into the macho bullshit of the criminal underworld, where the “good” thieves have honour, the bad thieves are unscrupulous, the cops are all sorts of shades of grey, and the real baddies are foreign gangsters exploiting American criminals. All told with a backdrop of shouting, shooting and doping. You feel, and I suspect the filmmakers feel as well, that the film must be about something – but it really isn’t, it’s a super violent, dark Rififi with none of that classic’s touch.

Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a crack crook, leader of a gang that executes difficult jobs on demand for their Russian paymaster, mob boss’ wife Irina (a showboating Kate Winslet). Atwood’s crew includes dirty cops Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jnr). Tasked to steal federal investigation data on Irina’s husband, Michael and his crew decide their only chance is to distract the police with a Triple 9 call out – the shooting of a cop. Their target? Belmont’s new partner, hotshot honest cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck).

Triple 9 isn’t particularly inventive or unique. The problem is it also isn’t very interesting. This is largely because you don’t engage with any of the characters. Atwood is a blank, played by a disengaged Chiwetel Ejiofor. He has a standard sub-plot of a son he isn’t allowed to see. But it’s not enough to get us caring about him. Chris Allen isn’t particularly likeable (Casey Affleck is not the most relatable of actors) so it’s hard to get worked up over whether he’s going to be killed or not. The most interesting character is Anthony Mackie’s Belmont – but he has been saddled with an “I feel growing guilt” sub-plot that you’ve seen dozens of times before.

Perhaps aware that a lot of the writing was paper-thin, the film recruits a number of familiar actors to “do their thing” so that we can shortcut to what sort of person the character is meant to be, by seeing crude drawings of their more famous, nuanced roles. Aaron Paul’s performance will be familiar to anyone who has seen Breaking Bad; Norman Reedus essentially reprises his role from The Walking Dead. Woody Harrelson does his grizzled half-genius, half-dope fiend, difficult man schtick he’s done many times. Only Kate Winslet is cast against her type – and her scenery-chewing enjoyment of the role makes her feel like an actress doing a guest turn, rather than a real person.

Hillcoat’s direction doesn’t bring any of the film’s threads together. It never feels like a film that is about something. Where is the depth, where is the interest? It’s not even a particularly exciting film to watch, with the heist moments not particularly exciting or interesting, and its shot with a wicked darkness that never gets the pulse going. After some initial build-up, the plot never really goes anywhere unexpected, and the final pay-off is stretching for a narrative weight it just doesn’t have. 

Hillcoat and crew obviously feel they are making a higher genre film – but this is really just a pulp thriller, with actors acting tough but never convincing. None of the major events make a massive amount of sense: characters run into each other in a way that stretches credulity, the Russian mob runs its business with a counter-productive brutality, the dirty cops alternate between super cunning and horrendously dumb.  It’s a dumb, badly written movie that never comes to life. It doesn’t even have the real moments of excitement you need to at least grab you while the rest of the film drifts along. Not good. Not good at all. Triple 9? Not even triple stars.