What does the lottery have to do with Good Will Hunting?

A red apple with a big mouthful bitten out of one side.

There are a couple of lottery tickets in Good Will Hunting – but only one is real. So what’s luck got to do, got to do with it?

Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a 20-year-old with a string of criminal offences to his name. He’s also a self-taught genius.

When Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers Will’s talent for maths, he ropes in psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) to keep him out of prison.

With Maguire his first stable influence in a long time, Will finds himself re-thinking what he wants from life – and whether he’s prepared to take a chance on getting it.

Would you take a gamble on happiness?

There are a couple of lottery tickets in Good Will Hunting. Only one is real.

The real lottery ticket belongs to Sean Maguire. The first time we see it is when Maguire and Lambeau meet in a bar and argue about Will’s future career. The second time is at the end of the film, when the two men finally mend their friendship.

This ticket stands for the film’s central theme: life isn’t pain free, but you have to take a chance to move past tragedy.

Maguire and Hunting must both learn how to make this leap of faith. Maguire did this when he chose his wife over a legendary baseball game. But then she died and, deliberately or not, Maguire hid himself away from the world.

Will Hunting, meanwhile, bears the scars of physical and emotional abuse. Intimacy feels threatening, so he keeps it at arm’s length. He pushes away those who want to be close to him, and punishes those he feels slighted or intimidated by.

The film ends with both Maguire and Will taking a chance on a new kind of life, a new journey. Maguire takes off to see the world, while Will goes after Skylar, the woman he loves. Instead of letting their pain define them, each man gambles on happiness instead.

How privilege stands in the way

Lotteries are emblems of social inequality, of the hurdles to levelling up by hard work alone. In a stacked race, luck is a valuable commodity.

That’s why the film’s other lottery ticket is a concept: it’s the idea that some gifts can’t be bought. Will Hunting’s genius, for example, is a fluke. He’s a janitor at a prestigious university (MIT), a place he feels he doesn’t belong socially.

Those with privilege and power often use it to exclude others from the inner circle, for instance by gate-keeping higher education, particularly by class.

But as Will points out, some students waste their time on an unremarkable education. They’re memorising the work of others, rather than learning to think for themselves:

“You dropped 150 grand on an education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”

Will doesn’t have any of the things we’re supposed to believe make people valuable (money, power, influence), but he wins the lottery when it comes to intelligence.

This is a ticket to a better life, whether by choosing fame and fortune – as Lambeau wants – or by embracing a sturdier self image, as Maguire suggests.

At first Will isn’t interested in either. Then best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) challenges him: “You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket. You’re too much of a pussy to cash it in, and that’s bullshit.”

Winning this lottery isn’t just about Will, Chuckie says. It’s the hope it gives all those who don’t have luck OR privilege. “You owe it to me,” he tells Will.

Chuckie adds that the best part of his day is picking Will up every morning. Each time a part of him hopes that Will will have left – no goodbye, no nothing – to make something of his talents.

This is how the movie ends. Chuckie, to a smaller degree, also wins the lottery, when Will finally up and leaves.

Class conflict

Good Will Hunting is riven with symbols of class conflict:

  • Will’s background Vs his intelligence
  • Manual labour Vs academia
  • Exclusive knowledge (Lambeau) Vs community teaching (Maguire)
  • Brains Vs brawn, i.e., scenes that switch between Will solving maths puzzles then beating up others
  • Poverty Vs Money: Will and Skylar are both orphans … but Skylar is loaded
  • Will, Will’s boss and Maguire Vs Lambeau
  • Will and Chuckie Vs corporate mentality.

Most plots rely on barriers. Without an impediment to overcome, there’s no story – and Good Will Hunting has more hurdles than the Grand National.

But while class here represents a number of obstacles, is it troubling that it hangs on stereotypes?

Middle- and upper-class life – the life of books – is supposedly a life of higher intellect and nobility. Working-class life is marked by crime and aggression.

In fact, the story fetishises this kind of (masculine) working-class existence through a very particular character type: the working-class warrior.

This is the aggressive or loutish thug who must overcome or conquer this aspect of his character to fit in. Or, where he has intelligence, it’s matched by his ‘true’ beastlier nature. Will and even Maguire are examples of this. See also John McClane, Travis Bicks and Rocky Balboa.

Good Will Hunting has touching and hopeful things to say about being human – and about positive male relationships. And yet it does a curious thing in fetishising working-class characters while championing them.

Ultimately, though, this reflects the world of the movie – and it’s the world we have off-screen, too.

Society consists of unfair limits and arbitrary privilege. But, the movie says, all the money and breeding in the world can’t guarantee you’ll be the smartest fish is the bowl. If genes are a lottery (see Gattaca), luck is one more antidote to social inequality.

Is there a bad Will Hunting?

When we first meet him, Will hasn’t had much chance to be good because he’s had all the tough breaks in life. ‘Good’ Will Hunting represents his potential, one he finally embraces at the end of the film.

‘Bad’ Will Hunting is the guy living with the effects of abuse, poverty and emotional trauma. He’s the one nursing a grudge since Kindergarten, and who uses it to beat another guy to a pulp.

Bad Will Hunting represents the lonely life that lies ahead if Will can’t learn to let people in, to accept that “you’re not perfect, sport”.

Through Maguire’s influence, Will grapples with a question that can change his destiny: which man do you want to be?

His choices are foreshadowed in Lambeau and Maguire. Both men see themselves as father figures to Will (and Will of course is missing a father). They also represent the two paths he could take; they are him 20 years in the future.

Lambeau uses his intellect to garner admiration. That’s why we hear so much about his medals and awards … and why we also see him flirt creepily with his students.

Maguire is more obviously an older version of Will. Both are from South Boston; both have intellect matched by aggression. Still, Maguire is the man who takes a chance on love rather than what others expect. And, as a result, he lives the more ‘authentic’ life.

This, ultimately is what Will wants, too. In the end, both channel aggression into bravery – because (as the film shows us repeatedly), fortune favours the brave.

Good Will Hunting (1997), directed by Gus Van Sant

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Picture credit: Dainis Graveris