Character Moment: The Importance of Clark the Harvard Bully in ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997)

Good Will Hunting is a 1997 drama about a supremely gifted young man who is having trouble finding his place in the world. A huge box office, and award-winning film, it propelled it’s leads into superstardom.

Good Will Hunting features two remarkable performances from Matt Damon, playing the titular Will Hunting, a genius of almost unparalleled levels who is also a man in need of guidance. That comes from Robin Williams‘ Sean Maguire, a counselor with his own set of issues. The film is also populated by a number of other significant supporting character, but there is a brief moment in the movie where Will has a peculiar encounter, and while it’s the source of one of the movie’s funnier zingers, serves a much more important purpose. Lets talk about Clark.

Pompous and good-looking, Clark is the leader of a small band of clinger-ons and takes his education seriously, all too willing to show off in public what he’s learned or memorized in books. Perhaps familiar with a number of people in the bar he frequents, he has pecked out his position as a smart guy with a confident attitude, maybe winning him some dates and more possibly a reputation. His posse is notably smaller in stature than him and clearly in admiration, so he surrounds himself with followers who have undoubtedly kept him on a pedestal he believes he is deserving of, though when he meets Will Hunting, that pillar crumbles.

The Encounter

Will Hunting (Damon), his best mate Chuck (Ben Affleck), and a few of their friends head to a Harvard bar hoping to score with some “Harvard Honeys” who might be looking for a carefree night away from their studies and the typical college boys they spend time with. Hunting is a genius with eidetic memory, able to instantly retain and recall nearly anything he sees with even limited exposure, including Harvard textbooks. Chuck, on the make for a date, sees a couple of beautiful girls at the end of the bar and decides to try his luck, energetically making his way to the women and introducing himself. The girls, warm and amused, play along as his friends make their way to the scene. All of this gets the attention of Clark (Scott William Winters), hovering just within earshot who, brew in hand, wanders over and engages with Chuck, snootily inquiring about Chuck’s place at the university. Rightfully assuming that Chuck has never taken a collegiate course, he prods him with some questions about the evolution of the market economy in the Southern colonies, spouting on about what his contention is concerning the history, leaving Chuck literally scratching his head. It appears Clark has himself a win, but then in slides Will who picks up right where he interrupts the grad student, revealing that Clark is in fact only regurgitating exact passages from textbooks, humiliating him in front of the girls and walking away the better of the two. So what do we learn?

To this point, we’ve already seen that Will is exceptionally smart but always studies in service to himself as a private indulgence. We’ve also seen that Will is exceptionally loyal to his friends, even participating in a street brawl that leaves him in trouble with the law in an earlier scene. Here though, we see how Will combines these two traits, putting his incredible mental gifts to use in defense of his friends. Of Damon and Affleck’s award-winning script, this one moment, and the Clark character, are perhaps most important (and reason why it was the only scene in the film parodied in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back). It established how, despite Will’s aggressive determination that his abilities do not automatically make him duty bound to make something grand of his life, he does in fact recognize that he is special. His intellectual prowess, which he actively hides and works hard to keep private, is and can be wielded like a powerful weapon, something he understands here and elsewhere as the story progresses.

Clark makes for a satisfying target, but we can’t underestimate the effectiveness of his place in the story and how well Winters portrays him. What might seem a trivial moment meant to make the girl (played by Minnie Driver) meet cute with Will Hunting, is actually a sequence more constructed for the audience than for her. Will’s intelligence is highly intimidating and for most everyone watching, well beyond understanding. The mathematical equations and problems he solves with ease are so far removed from the average movie-goer’s level of comprehension, Will rightly comes across as superhuman, a genius with no equal. Still, he is an everyday kind of guy, as we see by his occupational choices, but we recognize he is something more. He is infinitely humble and so carefree, we don’t sense how powerful he truly is. By facing Clark, we see the mental warrior unsheathe his sword and strike down an enemy for the betterment of man, so to speak. Clark is the playground bully, though in this case, it’s about brains rather than brawn and like any good bully, his defeat signals a shift in how we and the characters in the story perceive the hero. Notice how Will is literally not visible as the scene unfolds, lost in the background as Chuck is confronted by Clark. He is not the leader, not does he want to be, but when it’s time, he steps in front of his friend, taking the bullets per se, finishing the fight. It’s actually thrilling to watch and when Will counters Clark by suggesting he could have could have better spent his tuition with late charges at the library, it’s movie magic.

But Clark isn’t done, and Winters is spot-on perfect as the pompous braggart who still sees wealth and degrees as the markers for success. This final insult is crucial as it actually stings Will, who devolves from the intellectual battle to the first threat of violence, something the boys behind him are ready and able to get in on, but Clark and his group want no part of. He disengages and seemingly allows Will the victory, but even as he returns to his corner, smiles with a satisfaction that suggests he believes he is the one with the win, or maybe he knows he’s taught a man with clearly more intelligence than himself an important lesson. Either way, what we know is that Will is a gifted savant trapped in a body of unbearable rage and guilt that is in constant inner struggle. Like the fight in the earlier scene that saw the violence in Will explode, Clark is the tool for which we see the intellect erupt in a similar bitter outburst, and while Clark is somewhat vanquished in the bar, it is a moment later in a diner when he is metaphorically knocked out, seeing that Will has won the girl’s phone number as a trophy. This gives the chip on Will’s shoulder one more moment in the light, seeing the elitist Harvard scholar as a threat rather than a contemporary, and while we laugh at the closure, we must also note the importance of the student’s role in the story, playing the villain for which we can easily identify and feel good about his loss, elevating Hunting to a more sympathetic hero and setting the romance (and by extension, the point) of the film in motion.

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Director:

Gus Van Sant

Writers:

Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

Stars:

Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Scott William Winters

 

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3 Comments

  1. Cindy Bruchman February 21, 2016
    • David February 22, 2016