It’s been more than 20 years since the tragic, unsolved murder case of six-year-old beauty pageant competitor JonBenét Ramsey, but it’s clear that the case still resonates in the minds of many Americans as one of the most scandalous and sensationalistic murder cases in recent memory. As a result, filmmaker Kitty Green’s new documentary – Netflix’s “Casting JonBenét” – could provide new insights about this crime and a public venue to reflect back on the murder’s tragic legacy.
The documentary that’s not really a documentary
To call the new Netflix film a “documentary” is perhaps misstating what the film really is. It’s more of a “faux biopic” told through the eyes of nearly two dozen actors and actresses auditioning for roles in a fictional film that’s not really being made. What’s interesting – and also a bit disconcerting – is that the voice of the documentary filmmaker (Kitty Green) is never actually heard in the film. We don’t hear the questions that she is asking off-camera, and there’s no narrative voiceover telling is what’s happening, or summing up all the facts of the case in a way that makes the story easier to follow. The story unfolds in front of our eyes, and we’re not sure whom to trust.
But that was done intentionally. Several other documentary films have employed this approach, with varying results. The feeling one gets from watching this documentary on Netflix is that the true facts of the case may never be known. One actress after another discourses on the meaning of the case for them, and what they think of the Ramsey family. Some are clearly sympathetic to the father and mother (John and Patsy), while others clearly suspect them of having murdered their child. At times, the two views are presented one after another, leaving you guessing as to how the documentary filmmaker actually feels about the subject.
Sensationalism and exploitation
It’s hard not to expect Netflix’s “Casting JonBenét” to delve into the lurid details of the death of the young beauty pageant contestant or to add another sensationalistic layer to a case that captivated nearly everyone in America at one time in the late 1990s. The stated goal of the film is to explore the tragedy and its aftershocks in Boulder, Colorado, but it’s clear that a hidden goal of the film is to re-open the Pandora’s Box of media sensationalism. After nearly 20 years, we’re pulled back into the world of gossip, media sensationalism, and exploitation.
Unreliable narrators and bizarre conspiracies
Part of what made the JonBenét Ramsey murder case so compelling to follow at the time was the proliferation of so many theories about what actually happened. Some are convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was the father. Some are certain that it was the mother. Some are certain that it was the father and mother, acting together. And others believe it was one or more children – including, perhaps, JonBenét Ramsey’s own 9-year-old brother – who might have dealt the final, lethal blow.
And, as if to illustrate that fact, the documentary has child actors perform a bizarre task – trying to smash a melon with a flashlight while dressed in a raincoat. A few children are actually able to summon the strength to shatter the melon, thus leading to potential speculation that one of the kids might have killed JonBenét in a similar way.
The film becomes engrossing and impossible to turn away from when the actors and actresses auditioning for the roles start espousing some conspiracy theories of what happened. Some appear to be deeply obsessive, having studied every fact of the case in preparation for these roles. Others are more detached, but just as quirky. For example, there’s the actress who talks at length as to why she’s wearing a strand of pearls (for her, this was part of the iconic image of Patsy Ramsey, not her red dress).
The search for a bigger idea
Implied, but never stated outright, is that this film is about something bigger. It could be a broader rumination on the role of the media, the increasingly early sexualization of young girls, or the culture of violence in the United States. In the murder case of JonBenét Ramsey, all three of these ideas collided with maximum impact.
But, yet, there’s something about the documentary that doesn’t quite ring true. At some point, we suspect that the big idea is that there is no big idea: This was a case of senseless violence, in which there were only victims. As if to reinforce that idea, many of the actors and actresses also ruminate on topics like depression, abuse and family life. It’s at that point that the “fake biopic” begins to feel almost like a confessional. Here we have adult actresses looking back at their own personal lives, for any clue whatsoever to this murder case.
Certainly, the idea of using real actors as fictional actors to tell the story helps to reinforce the fact that this was a non-linear narrative from the very beginning. It’s impossible to trace the story of the murder and expect that a trail would lead from A to B to C. Instead, the media inserted itself into the narrative, turning the face of a six-year-old child into a symbol of mid-1990s America.
Plenty of question, but no answers
If you watch the entire 80-minute documentary, you probably are wondering what the filmmaker herself thinks of this murder mystery. One clue is her use of moody lighting that at times almost seems sinister. It’s almost as if she is using the lighting and soundstage to give subtle clues about how she feels about the case.
But – as noted above – there’s no final recap, and no final explanation. Instead, there’s a scene where the actors and actresses auditioning for roles begin to act out the events leading up to the murder.
Even if you never followed this 1996 murder case on TV, this is compelling filmmaking. Kitty Green’s film is a reminder that the neat, storybook endings found on TV bear no resemblance at all to real life, which is messy, clumsy and full of different interpretations. These events, when re-examined 20 years later, bring no additional clarity. All we’re left with is the haunting beauty of a child and the macabre legacy of a brutal murder.