mother, Patsy, was responsible for the crime. Others say the real killer was her father, John. Maybe John Mark Karr, a well-known child predator who claims to know who the real perpetrator was, did it.
Theories have, of course, devolved into other territories, most of them bizarre. There's a popular theory that a Santa Claus impersonator was behind the crime. The hairs of an animal, like an owl or a beaver, were found at the crime scene, so maybe some fantastical creature is guilty. Some even stand by the conspiracy theory that Ramsey never died, and that the murder was staged in order to allow the girl to become a pop star. (Plot twist: that pop star’s Katy Perry.)
Culturally, the story has become so murky and dangerously speculated upon that at this point it seems impossible to objectively – or accurately – dramatize the events of the case in the confines of a television show or a film. So at first glance does the existence of a documentary like Casting JonBenét seem rather fishy. We’re almost certain that what’s in store will be some sort of insensitive sister of a Lifetime reenactment, meant to not do much else besides cash in on tragedy and lurid interest.
But what we find is actually a feature spiritually similar to Robert Greene’s enigmatic Actress (2014). The latter film, which received almost no mainstream notice when it came out four years ago, depicted an aging actress’ attempts to make a comeback. In doing so, though, it blurred the lines between reality and fantasy by inserting "acted" scenes between the supposedly candid ones. Casting JonBenét does a similar thing. Here, we do little more than watch a series of auditions, but are apprehensive as to how genuine they are.
The film’s writer and director, Kitty Green, stages it all rather trickily. The actors on which the spotlight’s put are here presumably to star in a movie about the Ramsey case. They expectedly all think they’ll be doing line readings and starring in intimate screen tests.
But Green, we learn, isn’t trying to make a movie about JonBenét Ramsey per se. What she’s really interested in are the people wanting to star in this in-the-works project. So often are determined actors looking to find out why a given character’s motivated to do something. Green twists that expectation. The movie uncovers how people would play John, Patsy, JonBenét, John Mark, or even the Santa Claus impersonator in spite of their personal beliefs about the case, but it also asks why these people are drawn to the project at all.
At first, most of the people come across as fairly delusional hopefuls fed a steady diet of tabloids and Nancy Grace. One woman confidently tells Green that she specifically bought a pearl necklace for her audition because she felt the accessory was part of Patsy’s essence. (She also defends Patsy almost fanatically.) One man offers a wide-ranging theory as to how the crime played out, seeming uninterested in acting. For Casting JonBenét’s first act, we’re mostly seeing nobodies getting their chance to offer their theories and their opinions as if they actually mattered. Green presents it all kind of facetiously, mockingly.
But then the movie unspools – and becomes much more powerful than we’d initially expected it to be. Slowly but surely do these aspiring actors begin letting on why they wanted to join the cinematic venture. It turns out that many of these people have seen family members die tragically at young ages. Some of them suffer from mental illnesses they’re certain Patsy, for example, also had. One woman even survived a violent crime herself, and has, in the years since, felt a personal connection to the case.
These revelations – which hit hard – uncover a larger truth I wish I’d been perceptive enough to notice pre-viewing. What Green argues in Casting JonBenét is that this true crime cultural event has not endured just because it is so mysterious, because it feels so much on the brink of resolution. It has also endured because so many people find startling similarities between the case and their own lives, and it is these strange connections have helped feed a sort of everlasting intrigue and maybe even solidarity.
While watching, I was reminded of one of my favorite podcasts, My Favorite Murder. Hosted by comedian Karen Kilgariff and television personality Georgia Hardstark, the true-crime discussion series has become hugely popular within its pretty brief two years of existence. And lot of the fans are, like the individuals focused upon in Casting JonBenét, survivors of hardship, tragedy, and death themselves. (One person whose survival story was featured in an episode actually came to a live taping.)
I think that’s because so many of us can find comfort in knowing that other people in the world, whether fictionalized or nonfictional, have had similar experiences as us, whether they're positive ones or whether they are, as in this case, tragic. In Casting JonBenét, this idea is especially true. Featured here are people who are damaged, who are searching. And ultimately, that becomes just as compelling as the crime, and the emotional details of that crime, itself. A-
1 Hr., 20 Mins.
he unsolved murder of the 6-year-old pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey continues to haunt. Not just because a helpless tot was the victim of a heinous crime, but also because the ensuing investigation turned into one of those leadless, perfunctiontorily probed cold cases that forever seems to be on the cusp of being solved. Such makes the crime interminably intriguing. We’re always waiting on the edge of our seats for some kind of answer, a twist that will likely never come.
Two decades after the crime, almost everyone has their own theory as to how it played out and who was the primary culprit. Some say JonBenét's
March 2, 2018
This review also appeared in The Daily.