Director: Kitty Green
Running time: 80 minutes
Released on Netflix last weekend after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenét is a highly intriguing, provocative, at times frustrating, spin on the crime documentary and an uncomfortable examination of an increasing public obsession with highly publicised murder cases.
Casting JonBenét presents the story of the unsolved murder of a Colorado child beauty pageant star, JonBenét Ramsey, through the numerous opinions and conspiracy theories of local actors auditioning to play her and her family.
The Twentyteens – a decade that has already taken us on cinematic voyages to futuristic landscapes of 13 districts and universes inhabited by billionaire superheroes and web-slinging teenagers – has also seen the rise in power of something plucked directly from our everyday: the ‘true crime story’ documentary. Netflix in particular, has been a big-time player in a movement that has turned names like Steven Avery, Brendan Dassey, and Amanda Knox into subjects of global obsession. Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenét isn’t a true crime story, it is a perspective on one – or rather, a series of perspectives – and an excavation into the notion of truth.
It gives us vague details to work with: six-year old beauty pageant star JonBenét Ramsey is found murdered in her home shortly after Christmas in 1996. There is evidence of strangulation and physical abuse, and there’s a ransom note. From there, Green simply refuses to spoon-feed us anything else concrete. Unlike those aforementioned powerhouses of the genre, Casting JonBenét plays down any emphasis on the more substantive, scientific evidence and refrains from showing any archival footage. Instead, Green leaves us in the hands of a group of local actors auditioning to play the various roles to guide us through their version of events. Each one has a different story to tell, and fingers of blame are pointed every which way. The real people involved become increasingly difficult to pin down and define, as scapegoats become villains, and villains become red herrings – the irony of such ambivalent representations in a film about casting is almost tangible. Events and timelines are served to us as deliberately ambiguous, and as each conflicting layer is added to, we begin to learn more and more about how personal experience plays a pivotal role in shaping opinion.
The casting of JonBenét herself is very far from centre stage. For the most part, it is those vying for the role of the parents whose voices combine, conflict and ultimately construct a dialogue that has a very urban legend feel to it. The numerous JonBenéts are heard mostly through intermittent screams, and act as a chilling reality check to Green’s playfulness. One scene in particular, that visualises every suggested theory into a single studio space, is magnificently realised, and terrifyingly poignant. Green’s work is a film that is fabulously unconventional, and frustratingly inconclusive in equal measure.
As much finger pointing as there is in Casting JonBenét, many will be quick to point the strongest finger at Green and the film itself, however. In its very playfulness and unconventionality, Green’s film runs the risk of turning personal grief and tragedy into entertainment, to the point of being exploitative. A scene, played for laughs, depicts those auditioning for the role of JonBenét’s 9-year old brother Burke attempting to smash a watermelon open with a flashlight to help illustrate the possibility that he was physically capable of bashing her head in. It’s one of a handful of times when the film’s focus on the public obsession with publicised crime cases flutters dangerously close to the edge of cinematic, artistic, and moral tastefulness.
Casting JonBenét will be marvellously provocative modern art to some, and controversial and infuriatingly ambiguous to others. Either way, it is a work unlike anything that has come before, and something that is sure to stay with you long after the credits roll.