There’s always something about true-crime documentary that feels sketchy as a prospect, the idea being that it’s going to be in the style of one of those lurid television shows that just speculates rampantly about a random case while blurrily-filmed actors carry out whatever horrific crime this week’s attraction will be. With a subject as bizarre and infamous as the murder of JonBenet Ramsay, who very recently was the subject of that kind of segmented made-for-TV documentary that seemed to completely suggest she was murdered by her brother, that potential for ickiness expands tenfold. Thankfully, as you may have heard, Casting JonBenet dodges these particular pitfalls with surprising grace, in part due to the multitude of perspectives it calls upon with the actors all playing members of the Ramsay household, of a police chief, of a confessor, of Santa Claus, in part because the film they’re purporting to make feels like a real film, and in part because it dodges all of the crass nastiness that defines so much of our true-crime media to create something remarkable and multifaceted, without demonizing anyone involved in the murder themselves. Frankly, it’s not even that much of a true crime story so much as it is a portrait of Boulder, Colorado itself, and the people who’ve been haunted by the shadow of this case for decades. We do not just get to hear their ideas, but the ideas behind their ideas, what in their lives would make them consider the things they do about the JonBenet Ramsay case, and for that it’s a much richer portrait of the dozens of people interpreting the lives and legacies of the Ramsay family instead of the family themselves.
For sure, everyone they talk to has an opinion about the case. Patsy Ramsay was considered the killer by most of the adult actors, with various levels of complicity for John Ramsay. The child actors auditioning for Burke are mainly asked about their careers, and the JonBenets only appear three times as a group and one girl completely alone in the finale, almost always as props or for evocative imagery. JonBenet is not the subject of this documentary, despite the title, but neither is anyone else in her family. A lot of the evidence is still baffling, and several odd rumors are given some kind of due by the film itself or one of the participants. Subjects are able to agree with or contradict the confessional interviews of their fellow actors, with the film finding humor in the editing together of these interviews. One woman becomes enraged at recalling a newspaper article that listed Patsy’s looming 40th birthday as a possible cause for the instability that could’ve led her to kill her daughter, and the height of that woman’s fury is then swapped for another woman who so offhandedly mentions that birthday as a plausible contributing factor you can’t help but chuckle. Later on, one of the Patsys says she doesn’t believe nine year old Burke could have the strength to mortally wound his sister with a flashlight, and the next scene is a small montage of different child actors hitting a watermelon with a flashlight with such gleeful abandon that the awfulness of the implication doesn’t immediately register. Even some of the shots during the re-enactment are so self-consciously arty it winds up deflating any somber self-seriousness that could drag the whole thing down. That tonal variance keeps the film moving at a crisp pace, not just in its spare moments of gallows humor but the moments where it highlights something so patently absurd about this case, like the sequence of casting calls for mall Santas to wonder what they’re even doing here.
Initially, the film seems to present itself primarily as an easier kind of speculative crime drama. We’re given brisk self-introductions to the women playing Patsy, one of whom immediately separates herself from the others by wearing a blue shirt and dress jacket instead of the red t-shirt all the other women are wearing, on the basis that Patsy’s pearls were what she considered her most distinguishing feature along with her earrings, and the men playing John. Most of the actors don’t look terribly alike one another, aside from a similarity in age range, and no attempt is made to make any of the actors resemble one another beyond wearing the same outfits. Personalities and faces and hairstyles distinguish themselves from each other yet blur together as the confessionals are interwoven together even tighter and the interviews become deeply personal. But it’s not until after the police chief candidates are introduced that the film really hits its stride. Many of these men are police officers from nearby towns who talk about how they’ve used this case as textbook example of how not to maintain an investigation as recently as the previous day. Many go over how strange the ransom letter is not just at face value, but that it was written using paper and pens from the Ramsay home, meaning someone took the time out to write a two-and-a-half page note evoking kidnapping on behalf of foreign powers, demanding a ransom the exact number of John’s bonus for the year ($118,000.00) after they’d killed JonBenet, and other oddities in the letter. And then one of the actors mentions that, aside from bounty hunting, his night job is in sex education, and then he demonstrates how to properly use several flogging toys in the middle of about five other men wringing their hands at this letter. We’re then treated to maybe the third filmed re-enactment, this time of the sex educator as the police chief being interviewed by a mob of press, trying to dissuade them from going into overdrive and letting the police have time to investigate before a reporter asks if the Ramsays are now suspects. And it’s here that the film truly steps into itself while further enriching its ideas about not the Ramsays, but the people playing them and orbiting them, the things in everyone’s lives that would make them think they could understand what these enigmatic parents were thinking throughout the madness of this case.
Surely a small but consequential detail of the film’s success is how believably real the film this crew is alleging to make looks. Establishing shot often have a white, wintery texture evocative of the original Fargo, with production and lighting values strong enough to make it look somewhere along the lines of, say, a TV movie from a studio like FX that has plenty of money to throw around. I’ve mentioned that some shots strategically take the piss out of the project, but Casting JonBenet manages to do this in subtler ways while letting the actors play out their scenes, letting them give earnest interpretations without letting you ever forget this is fake. As the Patsys call the police, each with their own plausible combination of anxiety and terror, a ladder is visible in the hallway. The Johns find a white blanket meant as a stand-in for JonBenet’s body, and we can see the moveable stand that the hallway light is propped up on. Actors have time to get acquainted with each other before scenes begin, and interviews are conducted at the sets that the performers have been or are about to act at. We are reminded at all times that this is a recreation, not just of a real, horrible event, but one that no one actually knows the events of, except the tragic consequences of it.
I’ve mostly hyped the tone of Casting JonBenet for its unexpected levity, but its best use is in how it handles the surprisingly poignant or unsettling moments that the actors confess to the camera. The movie is mostly a series of months-long audition tapes from the actors playing Patsy and John as they reveal more and more intimate details about their pasts, details from their own lives that make them empathize with or vilify the Ramsays. Performances of the Ramsays and theories of who killed JonBenet and why are all marked by personal histories tied up with everything we know about the family: One woman, commenting on how everyone reacts differently to tragedies, evokes the murder of her own brother as a source of her performance, and mentions that her parents had met the Ramsays repeatedly to comfort each other over the murders of the children, a rare and shocking crime even without the tabloid madness that propelled the Ramsays into cultural awareness. A man compares John waking up and finding his daughter’s corpse to his own discovery of his girlfriend of many next to him in bed, having died of liver failure in the night. A woman recalls one of two moments in her childhood when an older neighbor tried to molest her when JonBenet’s own sexual abuse is brought up, and the sex educator cop appears to tell us that the original D.A.’s belief that it was caused by riding a bicycle or some similar nonsense is physically impossible, and that JonBenet could not have got those injuries any other way but penetrative sexual assault. One man says he may have a greater understanding of Patsy’s mindset now that he too has cancer, and another woman says that her own rage at her child while they were being potty trained and shitting all over her house could’ve been exactly the straw that broke the camel’s back that night as Patsy had to deal with another night of JonBenet’s bed wetting. We later see that woman, in the film’s near-final scene, carrying a JonBenet into the bathroom and later weeping uncontrollably while sitting on the floor, in total collapse.
The film’s actual last scene, as a spookily lit JonBenet actress dances around the empty set of the Ramsay house as “Miss America” plays into the end credits, is a slightly cheap and effective cap on the film, but it’s the previous, gargantuan roulette of re-enactments that’s actually the perfect finish to what the film is really about. As each of the actors gets a turn to play out the murder of JonBenet the way they think it happened, cross-cutting between truly different takes on how, why, and where the killing took place, we get one last, sweeping shot as all of these performers are next to each other, acting out their theories as others actors perform their own interpretation. The whole set is littered with Patsys and Johns, coexisting without acknowledging each other. The woman crying in the bathroom has two other versions of herself and the husband of a different Patsy in the adjoining bedroom of JonBenet, with the other Patsys and Johns carrying on around their “house”. Because at the end of the day, every single one of these people’s interpretations of JonBenet’s death has as much and as little validity as everyone else’s. There’s so few logical or concrete facts to go off of for interpretation, nevermind the DNA evidence excluding the Ramsay family and confessor John Mark Karr from the crime, that all we’re left to go on is what we think they would do based on the parts of ourselves we think we see in these people. The tapes are not as much what the actors think the Ramsays did, but what they think they would’ve done in accordance to the events and histories in their own lives that match up with those of Patsy and John.
Boulder, Colorado is the real subject of this documentary, and it pays rich dividends to director Kitty Green, who expressed such surprise that the actors yielded such poignant and personal information during their interviews. It’s the non-judgemental attitude of her camera, her desire to film and learn about the people of Boulder instead of her titular subject’s family, her allowance of the actor’s narratives to be equally valid while letting their emotions and identifications speak for themselves, that gives Casting JonBenet all the power that it has as a documentary. Green isn’t at all interested in another grossly speculative Who Killed JonBenet documentary, but instead earnestly puts together the portraits of a city still affected by the crime over 20 years later. We don’t know what theories she personally had about the case, but she knows that she’s not the subject here, and the caring she shows and the honesty she gets from her subjects is a much more powerful realization of her project than if we had any idea who Green herself thinks did it. It’s a powerful exposure of the kinds of truths surrounding how people view true-crime cases like these, not just the harden cops who’ve interacted with the case professionally, but the citizens who had to live with the whole thing happening in their backyards, the circus from a distance. It’s not about who they think did it, but the multitudes of ways this case defines them and their lives define what they think of this case. When something this awful and profoundly inexplicable happens, not just because it’s an unsolved child murder but why it’s unsolved, and how bizarre the atmosphere surrounding it is, all we have left to put together what happened is the pieces of ourselves that fit well enough into explaining a tragedy like this. Green gets that, and in making a film precisely about that we’re left with a harrowing portrait of the people of Boulder that leaves the Ramsays as unknowable as they’ve ever been.