Monday, November 10, 2008

"Heathers" Femmes Fatales II

A mix of Nietzsche and teen angst ending with the words, "There's a new sheriff in town," Heathers, a 1989 dark comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, is a wicked satire of high school cliques, disfunctional families, and the therapeutic culture. While the film was not a box office success, it has attained cult status, with continuingly solid DVD slaes and rental revenue. It was a critical success for first-time director Michael Lehmann, and the first major lead for co-stars Slater and Ryder after his appearanced in Name of the Rose and hers in Beetlejuice.

Heather Chandler, Heather Duke and Heather McNamara are three vicious, sexually manipulative, and deeply unhappy "popular girls" whose clique terrorizes the student body of Westerburg High. The pretty and intelligent but alienated Veronica Sawyer (Ryder) joins the croquet-playing prank-planning sorority as an "honorary Heather." Her first assignment is to humiliate her former friend, Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock. Veronica, whose parents show their concern for her well-being by assuming, as they sip their martinis, that she must be suffering every fad teenage syndrome they hear of on TV, is just going through the motions. There is nothing more empty than a teenage suburban limbo where "that's so 1987" is the worst imaginable put-down.

Then bad-boy Jason "J.D." Dean (Slater) transfers in to Westerburg. With his shades and leather jacket and his disdain not only for authority but also the Heathers, he embodies for Veronica the possibility of a sufficient self. But J.D., for all his apparent bravado, is an empty shell as well. With no real values of his own, this nihilist lives to expose the emptiness in others. Finding the lone wolf in him attractive, Veronica decides to explore the dark side, beginning with a visit to the top Heather who is suffering the effects of a hangover. But J.D. switches the pick-me-up Veronica pours for her with poison. In a frantic attempt to avoid blame for her surpise demise, Veronica forges a suicide note. Not only is the note successful, but Heather's suicide is seen as an example by her classmates, and the ensuing farcical deaths are celebrated as an "opportunity to heal" by the school guidance counselor.

Veronica begins this movie as a burned out cynic. In search of the thrill that she can no longer get from Barbie Dolls, she joins the "elites" of her school to prey on her former friends who are seen as nerds and losers. Finding this even more barren, she turns on the predators with J.D.'s help and takes down the Heathers and top Jocks. J.D., a true psychopath, revels in the destruction. When Veronica abandons him, he plans murder to silence her, and a holocaust for the school. But Veronica, realizing the real worth, if not the supposed glamor of her former true friends, realizes that she has a value she wants to protect. A woman with a mission, she goes up against a killer, and completes her metamorphosis from delinquent to champion.

With its dark humor, over-the-top performances, stylized lunacy, and disdain for convention, Heathers resembles many critical hits of the seventies such as A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The top-grossing teenage flick of the 80's, The Breakfast Club, would have us believe that mean teachers and low self-esteem are the central problems of youth, and that the cure is self-therapeutic weekend bull-sessions. Heathers blows that unintentional farce out of the water. At times surreal, almost psychadelic, Heathers succeeds as black comedy and as biting social commentary. But while Heathers succeeds as satire, it does not settle for mere cynicism. While Veronica flirts with nihilism, she never commits, ultimately withdrawing in horror once she sees the nature of that drooling beast. Beautiful and brilliant, a lack of strength was never Veronica's problem. Once she is wakened from her funk, she acts with courage. Veronica goes beyond the femme fatale, and choses to be a heroine instead.

Rent the film, buy the film, watch the film in full at YouTube:

Read Femmes Fatales, Part I and Part III


Landon Erp said...

I always liked this movie. I can think of about a dozen other movies that just wouldn't have happened without this film.

About the only other one I can think of that spawned as many quality imitators is probably Roman Polanskii's "Repulsion."

Ted Keer said...

Thanks, Landon. I'm curious if you would name some of those movies which Heathers made possible, in case we haven't seen them, and are interested?