Movieline 1989: Top Ten Performances in the Last Five Years

Winona Ryder in Heathers

First of all, the precocious Winona Ryder of four years ago gets credit for having the nerve and intelligence to go after this role to begin with. She knew that the subversive, satirical and blackly humorous script for this film would indeed play on-screen and that she could play in it. So far, it’s the best of the movies she’s been in—and that includes Bram Stoker’s Dracula, folks.

As the disgruntled Veronica in a band of hilariously vicious high-school cliquettes, the other three of whom are all named Heather, Ryder gave a performance that took her out of the screen corps of resonant, prepubescent ducklings and put her in a league of her own, as a smart, unexpectedly beautiful young woman sporting an unearned but charming irony. Hitting upon the perfect strategy for carrying an ultrasurreal girl-coming-of-age story, she plays Veronica as if she were just your average popular girl in a fairly realistic story about the vicissitudes of teen life. Ryder was perfectly aware of the filmmakers’ concept, which was that only the blackest surrealism could get at the reality of teenage humiliation and despair. She knew that if she brought only a normal quantity of sneering, eye-rolling and glaring to the plot points it would all come off as fabulously weird and true. So, as Veronica gets happily seduced by the literally devilish Jason Dean (Christian Slater) and turns semi-wittingly homicidal, Ryder becomes increasingly believable within a revenge fantasy of deliberately increasing unbelievability.

The more outrageous the proceedings (Veronica and Jason knocking off one of the Heathers and two jocks), the more crucial Ryder’s grounded performance becomes, and the more consistently she keeps us involved in Veronica’s confusion and emerging strength of character. None of the actors in this film plays for laughs, which is why it succeeds in making us laugh, but the underlying sincerity in Ryder’s performance is especially important because it is the key to the film’s moral center (and, while making jokes about teen suicide, it does have one). Heathers sets out to redeem teen mentality in the only way possible, by mercilessly eradicating the sentimentality with which its fucked-up cruelties and quests are habitually viewed. Ryder’s vanity-free, dignified take on her ridiculous, conflicted character—whose moment of triumph is to watch her ex-lover blow himself up—serves this purpose well and raises Heathers to the level of a minor classic.

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