The unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey, a six-year-old American pageant queen who was killed in her family home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996, is an ideal story for the Making a Murderer model of investigatory non-fiction filmmaking.
Blending and bending genres to highlight the elusiveness of the truth, Kitty Green’s experimental docu-drama Casting JonBenet presents the audience with a wealth of interviewees, each giving their own account of how the murder was reported. However, the people she questions aren’t friends or acquaintances of the Ramsey family but semi-professional actors auditioning to play JonBenet and her family. Evidently sourced from casting agencies in and around the Boulder area, each of them has their own conspiracy theories about the killer’s identity, many of which are inextricably linked to personal revelations about themselves. Many suspect that JonBenet’s death was caused either by her mother, Patsy, or JonBenet’s nine-year-old brother Burke.
It was during the Christmas period of 1996 that the Ramsey family discovered a lengthy ransom note detailing the kidnapping of their daughter. Eight hours after reporting her missing, JonBenet’s father, John found her lifeless body in the basement. Twenty years later and people are still fascinated by the mysteries surrounding the case. Why did the kidnapper(s) write a detailed, handwritten ransom letter, shocking both in terms of its demands and its specificity, on stationary found in the house? Why did police ignore the signs of trauma on JonBenet’s body that indicated she’d been sexually abused? And, seemingly most importantly to the actors who Green auditions, why did her parents look so guilty whilst talking to the media? All these questions point to a relentless yearning for certainty and a hunger from modern audiences weaned on 24-hour news coverage for stories that encompass the lurid and the chaste.
JonBenet’s murder was never presented to the public in a single, coherent narrative, and Green has decided to collate these various threads through the testimony of her actors – each trying in their own way to understand the crime and the character they’re playing. Their auditions are occasionally played for laughs, which would feel exploitative if it wasn’t for the fact that Casting JonBenet isn’t a film in search of the truth but rather a j’accuse at the media circus that surrounds these salacious stories. Where an orthodox linear narrative would have cemented “the Truth” in one particular perspective, Green presents us with a kaleidoscopic retelling of the news coverage, swapping one absolute for another and leaving the audience swamped with an overload of information.
At the end of the film all of the actors take to a sound stage replica of the Ramsey house to perform their own interpretation of the events of that fateful night. It’s here that the film’s thesis becomes manifest. One of the major criticisms of the Western judicial system is how the truth becomes distorted by the process of reorganising the entropy of motive and reality into a neat, familiar storyline. Casting JonBenet debunks the myth that filmmaking, both fiction and nonfiction, is a more reliable conduit for present the truth and exposes the human appetite for closure and need for satisfying resolutions.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble