Director Kitty Green delivers Casting JonBenet, an unusual but hypnotic documentary that interviews actors cast as players in the Ramsey cold case.
The first voice we hear in Kitty Green’s stylish, unpredictable documentary Casting JonBenet is that of a little blonde girl looking directly into the camera. She’s dressed in a sparkly, patriotic pageant onesie, and she introduces herself as an actress auditioning for the role of the doomed beauty queen. After she gently snaps the clapboard, her eyes look right through the screen and asks, “Do you know who killed JonBenet Ramsey?” Her eyes bore right through you. Her childlike curiosity wants an answer.
Green assembles a group of actors for a potential JonBenet Ramsey project that we never see, and it’s never made clear what these people are auditioning for. Audiences tuning into Casting JonBenet might be checking in for something like The Jinx or Making a Murderer, but this documentary is its own animal. After over two decades, we still don’t have any concrete answers for one of the most notorious cold cases in American history, but Green’s film surprises us by managing our own feelings of this mysterious story.
When a crime is that sensationalized for that long, everyone forms an opinion about what could have happened. That fascination and assured theorizing is one of the focuses of Green’s film. She assembles semi-professional actors and non-actors to read dialogue for John and Patsy Ramsey, and she allows them to talk about their own relationship with this case. The actresses auditioning for Patsy re-create the 911 call while the men emotionally perform finding JonBenet’s body in the wine cellar. Most of them come from Colorado area (some very close to Boulder, where the crime occurred), so they all have an eerie recollection of the events that took place.
This documentary doesn’t spend time trying to solve the murder or provide a solid resolution, and there is no archival footage pasted in between the interviews. Green hones in on the emotions of the people who want to play these parts. It’s surprising to hear a woman talk about her abusive father, and a man who wants to play John Ramsey tells the story of waking up to his girlfriend who died of liver failure in the middle of the night. Actors bare their souls, and these people are eager and more than willing to tell their stories of their own lives. When they talk about theories of who they think was behind the death of JonBenet, some expose their thoughts with eager gusto.
Casting JobBenet manages to be beautifully shot despite the unsettling subject matter. We don’t see JonBenet often (she’s only featured at the very beginning and very end), but her presence is felt throughout the film. The camera leers at its subjects in voyeuristic ways. When focused on John and Patsy it feels like its trying to catch them in a lie, but when focused on John Mark Karr in his cell it feels lurid and dangerous. I personally felt myself leaning back in my chair to avoid getting closer to him.
There’s a strange emotional heft towards the end of the film that has nothing to do with the JonBenet’s death. Green has said that her film is not about solely about grief, but we are forced to come face-t0-face with the emotions that her parents went through immediately after her death. Yes, these are actors, but they really allow themselves to be taken over by the material. The final tracking shot makes us realize that, no matter how many books we read or how many specials we watch, we will never fully know what happened in that house.
Casting JonBenet is unlike any documentary you’ve seen–especially with a case this high-profile or infamous. We may never know the truth, but we owe it to JonBenet Ramsey to acknowledge the emotions behind her death.
Casting JonBenet drops Friday on Netflix.