by Ken Bakely
Officially, we don’t know who killed JonBenét Ramsey. We will probably never know. But thanks to the incessant nature of the media firestorm around the investigation, speculation and rumors ran rampant – nowhere more so than Boulder, Colorado, where the events took place. Every place has its folklore, a piece of modern history which flavors the local culture. For the residents of Boulder who remember the Ramsey case, this is their own. Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet is not a documentary about JonBenét Ramsey. It is a look at how events such as these are received, how they are approached, and how they become infamous.
Told through the perspective of local actors trying out for roles in a drama about the murder, it’s a revelatory look at long-held beliefs and conspiracies, as interviews and auditions bring about the pet theories that each individual has. In filling the roles of John and Patsy Ramsey, as well as the local police officers, each profile is treated as a unique pastiche, showing the film as an examination of how our own perspectives and pasts color the way we engage with the world. They are peppered by personal experiences, naturally so. It’s eclectic, eccentric filmmaking.
Green steers clear of any exploitative, morbid hangings over the case. This is a past-tense look. She also makes the wise decision of presenting the film as editorially voiceless, recording what is being said when others would be tempted to weight each theory based on external criteria. The process of production – documented in auditions, screen tests, and demo reel-like clips of finished film – provide the only semblances of a frame. But for what is being achieved here, that’s all that is needed. With all its frills in style and aesthetic, Casting JonBenet is hardly minimalist, but it does a good job in stripping away the noise and the nonsense. The evocation of its subjects thoughts is startlingly unprovocative.
Yet this leads to a problem that the movie encounters along the way. It feels too slim in to be a feature length project. Two opposing possibilities emerge: edit to a solid short subject, no longer than an hour, or extend with more surrounding detail and examination of its largely nameless faces. At only 80 minutes as is, the latter could have been pursued. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the structure or enactment of Casting JonBenet, but the cycle of talking head segments mixed with those same individuals moving through the different aspects of the case becomes a bit monotonous after a while. There’s a degree to which the framing device of the crime drama – as integral to the assembly of the actors as it is – feels forced. It breaks up fascinating personal anecdotes and their relation to each person’s feelings on the Ramsey murder.
The potential pitfalls in this respect were not lost on Green. She works to find a good balance towards the end of the film, capping it off with a tremendous finale which combines every aspect of the movie’s central thesis. Casting JonBenet, its flaws withstanding, still represents a marked divergence from the traditional talking-head-and-archival-footage formula that occupies the vast majority of mainstream documentaries. In a way, it directly subverts this approach. By de-emphasizing one as the direct extension of another, it shows something else. Our perceptions of culture and media are impossible to separate from ourselves, and what makes them so absorbing, and the source of the diversity of opinions, is our own baggage. We are exposed to dozens of different views on the Ramsey murder, but soon it becomes clear that the interviewees are using the matter as a way to discuss their own lives. This is their movie, and these are their stories.