The Existential Masterpiece that is “Heathers”

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Christian Slater and Winona Ryder star as Bonny and Clyde duo Jason and Veronica

 

Heathers: 27 years is, quite obviously, a tad late for a movie review. Having the review, just the 5th on this blog, be a philosophical analysis of 80’s teen comedy Heathers is also painfully random and most definitely not a good way to build a strong reader base going forward. Nevertheless, while I needlessly procrastinated finishing the second half of my last post (or doing something actually worthwhile like, oh I don’t know, homework), a friend of mine convinced me to watch the movie Heathers with her and I knew instantly I had to write about it. To her, the movie (and the subsequent musical adaptations) had earned an almost religiously fanatical devotion, and her incessant habit of quoting every line before it was spoken had echoes of a priest reading scripture. So par for the course, it was only natural that she needed to spread its good word to the masses.

I was always going to be an easy convert.

80s parodies, from Airplane and Naked Gun to This is Spinal Tap and UHF are far and away my favorite comedies (and movies in general) ever made. Their eagerness and sharpened ability to tear through the realities of American life come off just as fresh today as they did back then. And while they never managed to hit terribly close to home, classic high school comedies like Clueless and Mean girls (the two most obvious comparisons my lazy-ass was willing to come up with), offered adorably farfetched daydreams of the social Serengeti of school in an undeniably entertaining manner.

 

And yet, I was never prepared for Heathers.

 

As it turns out, Heathers is not in the same ballpark as any of its contemporaries. In fact, it isn’t even playing the same sport. The level of ambition was simply unparalleled.  While other contemporary films had funny scripts, Heather’s screenplay (written by Daniel Watters) is an uproariously funny poetic opera; a neverending onslaught of quotable lines are intricately sewn together in an utterly spectacular commentary on humanity and modern society. But as much as it may sound like the Casablanca of the 80s, Heathers has none of the same romantic or practical sensibilities. Other teen films of the time were revolutionary for their portrayals of the modern high school reality, yet they always seemed to mix their satire in with an endearingly nascent sense of general optimism and heroism. Heathers pulls no punches. It is a macabre carnival of selfishness, evil, death, and twisted reality. And it is with this latter note that it becomes, and I say this with 100% certainty, a near-perfect existential masterpiece.

Like many a high school teens, the world of Veronica Sawyer (played by a very young Winona Ryder) is not right. She sold her soul to gain “popularity” and now hates her plastic reality — primarily, her 3 friends all named Heather (or as she describes them “a bunch of swatch-dogs and diet-cokeheads.”).

Luckily, the solution to all her problems comes in the form of rebel bad-boy Jason Dean. Christian Slater was reportedly considered for the role of Heath Ledger’s Joker and he shows why here, his slow midwestern drawl dripping with disturbed malice as he etches his mark in cinematic villain history.

After his anti-establishment swagger peaks Veronica’s interest at school, the two instantly form a relationship. And Jason, by happenstance, has the solution to all of Veronica’s problems. After a particularly rough fight with the abusive ringleader of the Heathers, Jason tricks Veronica into giving drain cleaner to her. To cover up, Veronica forges a suicide note which quickly creates cancerous repercussions that soon consume the small town. 

Thus begins a pitch-black drive through an exaggerated yet recognizable version of our own reality. Inspired by classic existentialist fare, an abundance of warped views, redundancies, and death work to create a chaotic and revolting sense of confusion that emphasizes the hollow nature of suburban existence.

Basically, it’s Waiting For Godot but with a lot more death.

Murder and rape fill the movie to the brim, but somehow nary a tear is ever shed for the victims. To the audience, their demises are presented just as jokes, and to the characters of Heathers, they don’t even register enough to reach that level. They are simply plot points that happen, only mattering in the gluttony of personal consequences they bring with them and touching none of the entire selfish cast of characters in a more empathetic way. They are an opportunity to advance socially for a Heather, a chance for a teacher to show-off her “new-age healing” powers, or just a brief TV News headline for the masses. Why this is, Heather argues, is just as nauseating today as it was then. For instance, in one pair of over-the-top scenes that had me seriously questioning whether to laugh or be petrified in terror, Veronica has a near identical word-for-word conversation with her parents. Yet in the latter scene, Veronica’s mother puts a poisonous spin on an age-old question, cheerfully asking “How was your first day at school after Heather’s suicide?”. The death simply wasn’t personal, so in this urbane existence, there was no need to care. 

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An 80’s high school comedy transcends time as an Existential work of art? You bet ya!

While these reactions are obviously exaggerated, their origin is an unnerving kernel of truth in the faults of humanity that shines crimson red throughout the picture: faults that stem from the constant unseen battle between the individual and the masses. That’s why a high school setting, in all its awkward Lord of the Flies Glory, is so effective as a microcosm to study society as a whole. To the people involved each excruciatingly small detail of their life matters personally, but to the outside we see only amorphous blogs of geeks, popular kids, jocks, and administrators mixing and bouncing off each other in an eternal dance. For example, while we clearly empathize with the abused group of surviving Heathers, they instantly take up the evil mantle of the dead Heather in their fight for power over the school. Thus by naming them all Heather, screenwriter Daniel Watters highlights their potential to be absolutely identical in the grand scheme of things.

Therefore, as Jason explains in one scene, why should it matter if a bully like Heather dies. She was undoubtedly a negative influence on society, so why should her death matter in the grand scheme of things? In a society such as this one where the concept of the individual is completely absent, her death doesn’t matter. Heathers even goes so far as to make this point literally: in one particularly ominous instance, Jason repeatedly addresses his father as his son and gets addressed like he was the dad. Like Rosencrantz confusing himself with Guildenstern, people in this film simply seem to forget who they are.

However cynical as Heathers can seem at times though, it smartly pushes back against this purely negative outlook. Instead, Heathers argues, people like Veronica can find meaning in life by overcoming their selfish pursuit of power, and instead, learn to find solace in maintaining friendships and caring about the hurting. Because as much as Heathers is a warning about the all too available paths to selfishness in one’s hearts, it is a plea to value others and the time we share with them. A plea to maintain that important friendship, or give a hand to the downtrodden. As one defining statement from a character from Heathers goes “Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make”. This sounds an awful lot like Albert Camus’ perennial question: “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” But thankfully, as long as that cup of coffee is shared with a friend, Heathers chooses the latter.

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