Van Sant knows how to exploit tricky situations to his own advantage. When he made his first film, Mala Noche, he had to find a way of shooting gay sex scenes without the full participation of one of his leading men, a young non-professional reluctant to feign homosexual desire. This obstacle necessitated some tentatively tender montages in which shots of mild physical affection were manipulated together to make us believe that we had seen something more than what had been played out for the camera.
That was 12 years ago, but Van Sant faces the same kind of test again with Good Will Hunting, his sixth and most palatable offering. How to convince an audience that there's more going on than meets the eye; how to negotiate without compromising. That he doesn't pull it off is less interesting than the possibility that he may not want to.
The film is the story of Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a 20-year-old Boston janitor who buffs the lonely corridor floors of MIT to a dull sheen and quietly solves complex mathematical posers that have foxed experts three times his age. He's a boy genius. In case you miss the script's endless reiterations of this fact, even the interior scenes show him bathed in golden sunlight, as though he's just OD'd on ReadyBrek. It can't be too hard for his friends to ascertain his whereabouts at all times. Where's Will? Oh, over by some window somewhere, glowing with that divine aura of his.
Matt Damon co-wrote the screenplay (with Ben Affleck, who plays Will's best friend Chucky) so it's understandable that he should have wanted to scuff his character's goody-two-shoes. There are sudden spiteful flashes in Will's personality which carry him that extra distance from sympathetic to authentic. There's a pleasingly abrasive moment after he has out-smarted a Harvard snob in a bar, and been rewarded with the telephone number of the girl the boffin was trying to impress. Seeing his former rival holding court in a coffee shop, Will pounds on the window and produces the number, wallowing in the man's dazed misery.
The film is full of relationships in which Will engineers the humiliation of others to prove his own independence. He is never less than bemused by the attention he receives from Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), who discovers his talent and rescues him from a custodial sentence for assault on condition that he commit to maths and therapy. In their first meeting, Will is handcuffed; Lambeau lights his cigarette for him. There's a bristling sexual tinge to the act. As their relationship progresses, Lambeau is consigned to the more submissive role, until he is scrambling around on his knees trying to extinguish a theorem which Will has set fire to, as the boy looks on with glorious contempt.
In a film which establishes dramatic conflicts only in order to resolve them, it is not as surprising as it may appear that Lambeau earns no reprieve. He has violated the picture's cautionary rule that it is better to live life than read about it, as expressed by Will's psychiatrist Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams, an actor who should be forced to have carpe diem tattooed on his tongue.
The honesty of the gutsy screenplay is undermined by its writers' inclination towards crass dramatic symmetry. Just as the orphaned Will has a history of abuse to contend with, so Sean must reconcile the death of his wife in order to continue living. These characters bare their respective wounds, and each takes their turn with the metaphorical Dettol. There is nothing wrong with presenting Will and Sean as soul-mates, but it is simplifying matters to imply that self-discovery is a well-signposted route with a beginning, middle and end - an A406 of the heart.
It's also telling that the treacherous open road of Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho is now invoked as a symbol of comfort and hope. Having wrestled their demons, unlocked their inhibitions and left a note for the milkman, Will and Sean set off separately to catch up on what they've been denying themselves. It's a standard passport-control question these days: business, pleasure or embracing the rich tapestry of life, sir?
In its favour, Good Will Hunting accommodates a love story, and an unusually convincing one at that, with the gently prickly charm of the British actress Minnie Driver lighting up the film.
A key scene in which she and Damon become acquainted while wearing novelty masks and glasses playfully underlines the tendency to disguise ourselves from those with whom we crave intimacy.
It may be a sign of Van Sant's own allegiances that Will's decision to leave his home town is less invigorating than the glee of his friend Morgan (Casey Affleck), who realises that this sudden departure means he now gets promoted to Will's old front-seat position in the gangmobile. The faintly homoerotic sense of worship inherent in the way Van Sant photographs his cast may be the only evidence of directorial identity that he has imposed on the film; the tendency to encourage formulated emotional responses is not a tactic you would associate with this director. He has recanted so dramatically on the promises made by his early work that when the psychiatrist tells the domineering professor, "There's a difference between direction and manipulation", you wish that Van Sant would take the hint.