The social structure of a wealthy high school is upended by a broody newcomer.
Directed by Michael Lehmann
Starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater
Review by Jon Kissel
Then, JD shoots some jock louts point blank in the face and I exclaimed out loud. It’s impossible that a movie could have a teen character do this today, or this century, and still retain his position as a romantic lead for any period of time, but in Heathers, firing off blanks at bullies in a crowded classroom invites no negative consequences for the character or for how the film views the character. This is made clear by the sympathetic figure that JD cuts in his body language, wherein he hugs himself within his trench coat, and by the equally and admirably ramification-free sex that he and Veronica quickly end up having. At this point, I’m still imagining that the rest of the film plays out as an edgy coup story where the more enlightened Veronica and JD upend the school’s hierarchy, but then JD poisons Red and Veronica easily goes along with faking her suicide and we’re in full bonkers mode.
Veronica and JD go on to murder the aforementioned jocks, triggering copycat suicide attempts and fake outpourings of support from the faculty and staff before Veronica turns on aspiring mass murderer JD and takes her eventual position as the new Red. The film ultimately ends where I thought it was always heading, but it takes a circuitous path to get there. JD is given a lot of opportunity to deliver his manifesto. Infected by his developer dad’s delight in tearing things down and destroying the opposition, he’s set his sights on bigger targets than historic buildings. He’s either a proto-Eric Harris or a pimply Charles Manson, eager to stage massive acts of violence and destruction to shake up a society he’s unilaterally defined as corrupt and in need of reordering, though he’s actually a sad boy who misses his dead mom. Despite having committed and covered up several murders, Veronica is the one who the viewer is set to cheer for as she gets the better of the increasingly-vile JD once he’s revealed to be one more brute despite his philosophizing.
Heathers, as directed by Michael Lehmann and written by Daniel Waters, isn’t on JD’s side but it provides plenty of fodder for him to sculpt his thesis. With a handful of exceptions, everyone sucks in this world. Veronica’s parents are useless, the faculty measure out the value of their students’ lives by how much to cut the school day short after their deaths, college students are no more enlightened or interesting than their high school counterparts, and the high schoolers themselves are varying degrees of selfish and oblivious, if not outright malevolent. In Veronica’s mind, she sets her classmates free from Red’s tyranny, but Green just steps up as her potentially meaner successor. Lehmann and Waters make a world eager for annihilation, with an unworthy savior in Veronica. The danger of making such a cynical film is that it boils down to nothing more than ‘everything sucks’ and that’s pretty much what happens here. Lehmann and Waters have terrible resumes after Heathers, so while there is something interesting here, especially for the late 80’s, admiration of the film’s daring can be chalked up to it being a rarity instead of its creators being some kinds of auteur geniuses.
Further detracting from Heathers is the unavoidable cultural trappings of its era which are too aromatic to wave off as it being a different time. The visualization of teen sex here is repulsive. Red experiences a Big Mouth-esque head push at the frat party, and the subtext seems to be that she lets this happen as opposed to Veronica who fights off her would-be assaulter. At the double-date that Veronica and Yellow have with the two jocks, one can be seen pinning a struggling Yellow’s wrists to the grass in the background as he writhes on top of her, and this goes on for a very long time. Both scenes are gross, and it’s simply hard to believe that anyone ever thought either was ok. On the gay front, Heathers gets closer to satire with the planting of supposed gay paraphernalia at the jocks’ murder site, but then there’s the scene where one of the jocks tortures a nerd into saying he sucks big dicks and the film takes way too much pleasure in playing this as a joke.
Modern political correctness aside, I had a difficult time getting on Heathers’ emotional wavelength. World’s Greatest Dad was loaded with truth of many different kinds alongside its satirical impulses: this plays what should be devastating moments as comedy. Red’s family isn’t at her funeral so we stay in the mindset of callous teens who are considering what this means for their lives. The jocks’ families are at their funerals, and a father giving a speech at his son’s casket is, to my mind, impossible to play for laughs. Heathers somewhat knows this by having a tearful little sister look at Veronica and JD as they laugh over what they’ve done, but the film also thinks the dad yelling ‘I love my gay son’ is a joke. Most improbably, the film plays Veronica’s mom walking in on her hanging from the ceiling as a gag. In what world could someone imagine that moment as anything but a nightmare, and a fantastically cruel thing for Veronica to do? This was a bridge too far for me, and damned the last several minutes of the film.
As a kickstarter to Ryder’s and Slater’s careers, Heathers is in its most comfortable place. Neither have been consistent stars after run-ins with crime and drugs, but they’ve got enough positives in their work to make their breakout film noteworthy. Few actors could have taken Veronica’s role, considering her actions, and made the character into anything less than a monster, but Ryder’s charisma blanks out Veronica’s sins after a few scenes have gone by. It’s impossible to be on anyone’s side here, but she consistently ranks as the least bad option. Slater’s charisma is more malevolent, and it’s easy to imagine him playing this role straight or taking it to a grander place and it all being believable coming from him. Heathers has a strong premise and the cast to make it work, but it is so chilly and sharp that it prevents anything warmer than ambivalent feelings towards it. I’ve said it before but the 80’s were a weird time. C