CASTING JONBENET Review
Director: Kitty Green
Genre: Documentary, True Crime
Why do some murders collectively fascinate us more than others? What causes us, as a culture, to obsess over the minutiae of some horrific crimes, but to completely turn a blind eye to others? Many would point to media manipulation as the root cause of our selective outrage; that is to say, what news outlets choose to cover and ignore determines what we fixate on. But this argument, so often levied by world-weary cynics, misses the deeper truth of how media operates. Every day in our never-ending cycle of news, producers and network executives are choosing what to focus their cameras on day after day. And what they choose to fixate on is based more on gut instinct than clinical calculation. They are, after all, human just like the rest of us.
Let me give some context: the unsolved death of JonBenét Ramsey should not be something that has burned itself into our collective psyche 20 years after the fact, but still it remains. Partially, this has to do with the particulars of the case itself: a six-year-old beauty pageant queen is briefly reported missing before she is found strangled to death in the basement of her family’s opulent home in the city of Boulder, Colorado. She died on Christmas day, 1996, and a ransom note was left in the house demanding $118,000 for the return of girl, who had in fact been lying dead in the basement the entire time. In the subsequent investigation and media circus, the family came across as bizarre, disingenuous, and suspicious, to the point where much of the public became convinced that the Ramseys had committed the murder.
Shockingly, convincing the public that you’re not guilty of filicide isn’t a skill taught to beauty pageant queens
The thing is, the case remains unsolved, although both parents have been formally cleared of charges. We will most likely never know who killed JonBenét, and on the surface, this may make it seem like an odd subject for a documentary. Kitty Green is not particularly concerned with conclusions, or even definitive truth in her new Netflix documentary, CASTING JONBENÉT. The movie is not told through archival footage, but rather through a series of actors, all auditioning to play the key characters in a film about the JonBenét case. The actors relay their informal, partial memories of a murder from 20 years ago as best they can recall, all while attempting to get into character. It’s a little abstract to explain in writing, so this is one case where seeing the trailer might be helpful.
Green’s film is not about bringing new information to the case, but rather exploring how a community recollects a case as tragic and dark as this. Green is unconcerned with presenting the complete definitive story, but rather with engaging the audience in a meta discussion of how media creates our reality. By showing the audience a peek behind the curtain into the casting process, Green makes us constantly aware of how all the media we consume is a construction. While a few of the actors in this story actually have tangential connections to the Ramsey family, all have an opinion on the case, regardless of whether or not they have any stake in the case at all. Through the various actors, Green is able to tease out many of the various conspiracies which have sprung up around the case, all the little inconsistencies in the narratives presented by the Ramsey family and by the Boulder police. By letting her subjects speak for themselves, Green is able to carefully demonstrate how wild our imaginations can be when we find ourselves filling in the blanks of a story which refuses to add up.
In context, it’s all somehow more unsettling than this image can even convey
It’s hard to ignore the parallels between a film like this and O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA. Formally and aesthetically, the two documentaries obviously take wildly different approaches, but in terms of their weight in American culture, they intersect quite a bit. Both the O.J. Simpson trial and the Ramsey family investigation were massive events, spurred on by the recent invention of the 24 hour news cycle in the ‘90s. In both cases, the victims were pretty, affluent white women who had been brutally murdered, and all the evidence seemed to point to the victims’ loved ones being the obvious culprits. Simpson and the Ramseys were never convicted, and the lack of resolution created quite a bit of public outrage.
Believe it or not, this actually isn’t a still from DEXTER: ORIGINS
I’ve always felt that these cases lodged into the American psyche because they disrupted the narrative of who “good people” are supposed to be. Football-legends-turned-movie-stars are not meant to murder their wives, and affluent white parents are not meant to murder their daughters. Obviously there are plenty of differences in these cases as well, but it is no coincidence that both of these stories have been revisited in documentary form over the last year. While Ezra Edelman was interested in specific truths in OJ: MADE IN AMERICA, he equally wanted to understand the culture that created Simpson. Similarly, Green uses CASTING JONBENÉT as a cultural exposé. Both these cases brought up ugly truths of what wealth and privilege can afford an elite class of Americans, and they showed an ugly side of the lives we value more than others. It’s important that we’re revisiting both of these narratives now, because they showed some uncomfortable parts of ourselves, and examining these uncomfortable truths is how we, as a culture, can one day hope to improve.