"See the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you're gonna start doing some thinking of your own and you're gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: One, don't do that. And two, you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin' education you could've got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library."
Twenty years ago today, Good Will Hunting opened in movie theaters and the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (not to mention his little brother, Casey) skyrocketed. The two young actors had starred in and written one of the best screenplays of 1998. Critics embraced them, and the Academy Awards would follow. Damon and Affleck would go on to win Oscars for their original script — the story of a working-class genius who gets himself discovered and falls in love.
While the Oscars are prone to handing out mistakes, they got this one right. Good Will Hunting contains a rare mix of characters from different social classes, ages, opinions, and even countries. The dialogue is authentic and, at its best, wickedly funny.
Pick a moment: Will (played by Damon) defending himself in open court, Chuckie (Affleck) posing as Will at a job interview and demanding a retainer, Sean (Robin Williams) recalling the night he skipped Game 6 (yes, it deserves to be capitalized) to stay with his future wife. Good Will contains sequence after sequence of magic. However, there's one scene that stands above them all.
It has been dubbed "The Ponytail Murder" (by me) and you know the scene I'm talking about. Here it is.
Casey at the end: "My boy's wicked smart" is the perfect exclamation. And yeah, I count the following famous clip as a continuation of the Ponytail Murder.
The Ponytail Murder deserves some close attention. It moves fast. Damon was a great student growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and attended Harvard himself before dropping out to pursue acting full-time. (He wrote the first draft of Good Will Hunting while at the Ivy League university.) The dude is book smart and it comes through in his performance. To buy Good Will, one has to buy the fact the kid is a genius and Damon makes you believe it. He speaks quickly, confidently, and menacingly to intimidate.
In drama, genius often substitutes for superhero, and that's what we have here — a superhero moment. Will has a few of them in the movie. He's called upon to use his superpower to combat evil, even saving a friend and impressing a love interest in the process.
What about his actual smarts? Does Will's attack hold water under scrutiny? You can't say it's misplaced. Will watches as Chuckie hits on Skylar (Minnie Driver) and her friend. Ponytail, AKA Clark (played to douchebag perfection by Scott William Winters) sees and can't help but have a little fun when Chuckie claims to be a Harvard student. With a huge cloud of smug hovering over him, Ponytail proceeds to call Chuckie out and embarrass him.
Friends stick up for friends and Good Will Hunting, perhaps more than anything else, is a movie about friendship. Chuckie would "lie down in traffic" for Will and Will would do the same. You have to give Damon and Affleck credit for this scene. It's the perfect setup for Will to show off and the perfect way to convey to the audience important things about Will's character (intelligence, loyalty, ferocity). This is how drama is created — by adhering the audience to the character. You love Will after this scene.
Outmatched by Ponytail, Affleck has a brilliant moment where he actually scratches his head like a troglodyte. He's not gonna win. He knows it, and Will takes over. Interrupting Ponytail's "contention that, prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities, especially in the southern colonies, could most aptly be characterized as agrarian pre-capitalist..." Will starts in on Ponytail by taking him seriously. He tells the Die Hard villain-looking Ponytail that his contention is predictable for a first-year grad student. He says pretentious Pony probably read some "pre-Marxian historian" like Pete Garrison and will change his mind when he reads James Lemon and Gordon Wood. Will has been there and done that.
Ponytail then shows he's still got some smarts left. He doesn't know he's met his match. He actually continues the conversation by disagreeing with Will, saying "Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions..." Until Will interrupts, finishes the line, names the author, and calls Ponytail unoriginal for plagiarizing other people's opinions and passing them off as his own.
Ponytail is crushed. He crosses his arms. In body language terms he might as well be burying himself in the dunes of Wellfleet. Will continues, fully in control. He unleashes the savage lines quoted at the top of this article. He stares Ponytail down. He cocks his head. This is how you beat the tar out of someone without ever touching them. Chuckie even gets in a final shot.
Does Will actually know what he's talking about? I couldn't confirm Pete Garrison, but James T. Lemon and Gordon Wood are both well-known American historians. Lemon wrote The Best Poor Man's Country: Early Southeastern Pennsylvania which certainly qualifies as colonial history. And Wood appears to be the Michael Jordan of his field. He's currently Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University and won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History. Wood apparently did debate whether or not the colonies were driven by a market economy or an agrarian economy in a New York Review of Books essay. It looks like Damon and Affleck did their homework.
Whether or not what Will and Ponytail are arguing about is true doesn't really matter, does it? It sounds true. It feels true. That's all that really matters in movies. The Ponytail Murder still stands as an all-time verbal beatdown 20 years after its release. Did Ponytail really deserve it?
Well, yes, I believe he did, your honor.