‘Heathers’ and the Rashomon Effect

I don’t miss secondary school. At all. In retrospect, most of the time it felt like a futile race to the top of the social pile, nearly everyone ravenously eating up whatever trend was currently in vogue and gossiping about friends and enemies alike as though it was going out of fashion. ‘Looks over books’ was the creed. Your lip-gloss was more exciting and influential than how well you did in a maths test. I was reminded of this dog-eat-dog school environment after watching the 1989 teen-movie classic ‘Heathers’…

Directed by Michael Lehmann, contradicting interpretations noticeably permeate the background of Heathers. I wasn’t sure what to think at first, when the film rolled to a close after I watched it for the first time. I couldn’t surmise overall my perspective and felt a little confused. Everything seemed a little -off- in terms of closure… the loose ends had been tucked under the carpet, instead of tied off as expected. But it wasn’t a bad film, I didn’t hate the experience of watching it. In fact I enjoyed the challenge of trying to understand what the film was really trying to tell me.

That was when I realised that the film made ten times more sense, and had a much greater impact if events were seen as from the perspective of the protagonist Veronica Sawyer (a fabulous Winona Ryder), i.e. the Rashomon effect put into play. We see the events of the film as experienced and subjectively interpreted by Veronica. There is a distinct unsettled atmosphere from the beginning –  three girlfriends playing croquet feels more like a group of political rivals ‘playing nice’ to feed their own malicious intentions. The scene is all pregnant silences and vicious fleeting side-eye glances. Perhaps this opening gam, void of any fun and swollen with tension, is an allegory for the whole film.  A moment of particular power is the image of ‘Heather #1’ Chandler, the current Queen Bee, pressing her cherry red lips to a croquet ball, her eyes glittering with determination.

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The croquet-playing, colour-coordinated clique of Heathers dominates the high school and its social structure. This isn’t anything new, as the microcosm ‘teen society’ within most high schools is hierarchal, with the prettiest, wealthiest and most outwardly confident youths in the school at the top. A dash of shrewd ruthlessness is also an important factor in maintaining power made evident: Heather #1 is a stone-cold bitch beneath the polished red-favouring aesthetic. Unsurprisingly green-teen Heather #2 immediately and eagerly steps up to the plate by adopting these ‘mega-bitch’ qualities when the original Queen is toppled from her throne.

Another, important, antithetical character is new student J.D, portrayed effectively by a fresh-faced Christian Slater. His dark clothing palette and snarky, provocative attitude (he pretends to shoot a pair of jocks with a real gun the first time we’re introduced to him) paint him as the ‘dark, handsome but dangerous stranger’ trope. He immediately attracts and forms an alliance with Veronica, who up until now has been tagging along with the Heathers, for what she claims to be reasons of maintaining social power. As the film goes on, J.D’s devil-may-care, almost unnatural demeanour begins to sour – is he the true antagonist? Or perhaps he is a non-existent figment of Veronica’s imagination, the manifestation of dark temptations of teenage suicide personified by a heart-throb rebel figure suddenly appearing in Veronica’s life. He’s unexplained, seductive and immediately latches on to Veronica from the get-go, seeming to crop up by her side at just the right moment. His character is both defined and overwhelmed by his violent, unorthodox past. His father’s apparent hand in the death of his mother has had obvious ramifications in J.D’s personal and psychological development – how would you feel if your father accidentally blew up your own mother?

Strange quirks aren’t exclusive to J.D, peppering the film and remain unexplained and open to audience interpretation. We aren’t spoon fed information. Veronica jams a monocle into her eye every time she scratches a scathing entry into her diary. And it’s just… there. There isn’t an annoying narrative of “I wear this monocle because my Grandpa gave it to me. It makes me feel connected to the past.” Nor is there a contrived conversation that tries to resolve the monocle-mystery via some painful, completely unnatural dialogue. We’re left to wonder why she wears it in peace. What is it with modern teen flicks using horribly artificial dialogue that no teenager in this, or any age would be seen speaking? (I’m looking at you Jennifer’s Body). In fact, I’m so used to the Hollywood trend that lays out every aspect of a story in plain view that I was a little confused at first – a relatively mainstream film that actually allowed me to use my brain a little was quite refreshing. In terms of character relationships, Veronica and the Heathers as best friends seem like an unlikely, even jarring match, with Veronica visibly having little patience for the petty social games her friends play. In fact pettiness seems to be a running theme in the film – teenage drama is magnified to the point where situations become life or death. Even teen catchphrases border on the melodramatic – “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw!”

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A key moment is the implication that Heather #1 is raped during a chaotic college party. Veronica, unaware of her friend being pressured, is also on the receiving end of a slimy coercion. The literal urge to vomit allows her to slip away. Unfortunately the upchuck ends up splashing all over Heather’s, soiling her shoes. And her reputation. Thus both girls are both too wrapped up in their own feelings of shame and disgust that they snap at each other and end up falling out.

Cue the angry diary rant: “Dear Diary, I believe I’m a good person. I believe there’s good in everyone. So I look around at these people I’ve known all my life and think, ‘What happened?'” And then Veronica’s plot to exact revenge/justice, with J.D dogging her side with an almost sinister persistence, is formed. Initially, vengeance is only sought through a childish prank stemming from Veronica’s humiliating turn at the college party: “I just want to see her throw up too.” Orange juice and milk is the fairly harmless suggestion. But Veronica’s dark partner in crime isn’t satisfied with something so banal, instead pressing Veronica to serve her best friend a mug of sickly blue drain cleaning fluid. It’s made to look as though its an accident, but it happens. Heather chugs down the mug full of poison, and croaks, making a lovely mess of a glass table in her death-plummet:

“Oh my god I can’t believe it, I just killed my best friend,” is Veronica’s response.

“And your worst enemy.”

“Same difference.”

Heather’s death, upon being discovered, is chalked up by the police to be a ‘teenage suicide’, based on the (forged) suicide note she apparently left.

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Teenage suicide is made out to be quite the rampant social problem in the 80s, culminating in a trashy pop song called ‘Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)’, which smashed its preachy way into the charts. And of course it rears its gruesome head in the film. But the act of suicide is rarely taken seriously by any of the characters, being seen as more of a quirky trend than a tragic attempt to end one’s sorrows, even by the adult staff at the high school. During the course of the film, so many teenagers seemingly take their lives that a student from one of the lowest rungs of the popularity hierarchy goes out of her way to ape her peers, for the sake of conforming to the grisly trend. Despite it being implied that she is the only student to actually attempt to commit suicide, ironically, she survives. The teenage deaths (or rather, murders) also occur in increasingly implausible situations – what about all the fingerprints Veronica is obviously leaving everywhere in Heather #1’s bedroom as she composes the false suicide note? And again all over the gun she uses later on? These don’t seem like silly production mistakes that slipped by unnoticed by the editing team – these seem like little winks to the audience. We’re being invited not to take anything we’re seeing too seriously, and this only escalates as the film progresses. The notion is also emphasised by the synth-laden score, which has an uneasy recurring refrain that’s simple, but effective – could it perhaps be a reflection of Veronica internalizing her unsettled environment into something more palatable? If so, then nothing we see is reliable, everything is biased to our protagonist’s perspective. Real events are likely being skewed to fit with the selfish, naive personal values of a teenage girl.

But that’s what makes the film so fun. The dramatic, self-absorbed mind of a teenage girl is a fascinating place. Social prestige seems so important when we’re young, and every minor event is blown out of proportion to the degree that friendships are forged and slashed to tatters within the same week. Most teenagers are relatively cushioned from most of the worries that plague adult life, instead being allowed to focus on their education and the tricky challenge of growing up. That’s why Veronica  seems to bump off her schoolmates with little remorse, attending their funerals as more of public service than an opportunity to mourn – they were a ball-ache when they were alive, so why should she be upset in their absence? Could a subconscious guilt at such a cold reaction manifest itself in Veronica blaming herself for the suicides of her peers? She seems the type: over-analytical, reserved and self-reflective.

Everything is about keeping up appearances (and bettering them). Which is why Heather #2 so eagerly jumps into the Queen Bee spot before her ‘friend’ Heather #1 is cold in her grave. Such is the life of an adolescent attending high school. In fact we’re given a beautiful shot of Heather #2’s ascendence in the third act, light filtering through large school windows over her smug, languishing form. She’s swathed in royal red: the forbidden fruit once so exclusive to Heather #1. There is little remorse for the deceased to be found here either. No wonder Veronica (a little hypocritically) asks her why she’s such a ‘mega-bitch.’ Instead of solving the ‘problem’ of a teen queen tyrant ruling the school, Veronica appears to have simply opened up a vacancy for the next most popular girl to fill her place. And in this blatant frustration at the turn of events, I see Veronica’s realisation that nothing has changed, despite the momentous event of a close one’s demise. The social structure of the school has made human life a joke, and Veronica feels guilty for this, for taking part in such a ruthless lifestyle.

This I believe, is the main reason for Veronica painting the deaths of her schoolmates as murders. She blames herself for being blind to how futile the social race for popularity is. She was drawn in, seeking to contribute her own two cents to the school’s hierarchy, by punishing the ‘queen,’ whilst being goaded on by the ruthless, amoral stranger J.D. Once Veronica realises her mistake, she rightly seeks to draw her personal ‘Iago’, and rid herself of the dark urges to meddle and understand the social and emotional aspects of her schoolmates.

As Veronica dramatically terminates her allegiance with J.D he asks her one final question:

“What are you going to do with your life?”

Veronica responds by silently slipping a cigarette between her lips in a clear ‘fuck you’ indication that symbolic of how she’s going to do whatever the heck she wants, consequences be damned. And later she truly bucks the social norm by deciding to embark on a friendship with school’s least popular student, in realising that she is likely to be the most sincere, trustworthy individual Veronica could associate with. In the end, she has come to realise the vapid, futile nature of the quest for popularity and power in a high school environment. In five years it’ll all mean nothing and nobody will care anymore. I wish I’d had a similar epiphany when I was in secondary school.

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