Over two decades later, the unsolved murder of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey remains a cultural fixation. For the case’s 20th anniversary last year, television networks like CBS and AMC flooded their line-up with days-long docuseries exhuming old evidence, testing conspiracy theories, and beating dead horses, since nothing new has been released since the murder proceedings in 1996.
If you’re approaching the Netflix original documentary Casting JonBenét hoping for revelations, you’ll be sorely disappointed. In fact, JonBenét’s murder is only tangentially the subject of Casting JonBenét. Really, the subject of this unconventional documentary is the American public’s fascination with true crime.
There are no police statements, expert analyses, or dramatic voice-overs in Casting JonBenét. The documentary — if you can call it that — consists only of interviews and line-readings from amateur actors auditioning for a recreation of the murder and trial. Each actor happens to be from Boulder, Colorado, the setting of the murder.
Of all the roles being auditioned, from John Ramsey to JonBenét's older brother, the richest interviews come from the women dressed up to be Patsy Ramsey for a day. Each amateur actress approaches the role of JonBenét’s pageant queen mother with her own prejudices, theories, and interpretations of the complicated figure.
Filmmakers splice together the interviews to create a disjointed, almost comical, dialogue over the essence of Patsy Ramsey. After one actress bristles at the media's citation of Patsy’s impending 40th birthday as a possible motivation for murder (“Talk about putting women in a box”), the following actress confidently accuses Patsy for just that reason, saying, “The mother had to do it. She was about to turn 40. She was jealous.” The two would-be Patsys are wearing the same costume, but they're playing a different woman.
Interspersed between interviews are opportunities for actresses to show off their chops. As the women read Patsy's testimony in front of the camera, some stumble over lines, and others inhabit the role with pathos. One woman can barely bring herself to read the lines, so disgusted is she by Patsy's apparent guilt. It’s in this vibrant spectrum of amateur acting abilities that Casting JonBenét’s thesis hits home.
As her court testimony is passed from actress to actress, Patsy Ramsey becomes a jealous woman, a spiteful woman, a wronged woman. Patsy becomes a receptacle for the actresses’ resentments and sympathies regarding motherhood, the media, and murder motivations. With each audition, Patsy becomes more of a symbol and less an actual person — who was born in 1956, died in 2006, and was accused of murdering her daughter.
By the documentary's end, we know more about the people in the audition than about the Ramsey family — and that’s just the point. The filmmaker, Kitty Green, told The Verge that her aim was to “make more of a portrait of a community than another whodunnit true-crime special.” Hearing the performers tell stories of grief to help get in character, Casting JonBenét becomes more an exercise in community catharsis than anything else.
No recreation can bring us closer to the truth, but perhaps this weird work of art can. In this documentary, the truth lies in how the actors relate to the American true-crime machine, that cacophony of media coverage and theories that culminates in chatter, but no conclusion.
Similarly, Casting JonBenét offers no easy conclusion. It never stages the murder scene the actors had been recruited for. And that’s because, really, there’s nothing to recreate. There are no facts. There’s just a creepy, futile impulse to tunnel our way back to the past, to the room where it happened, to the evidence. And that’s how we find ourselves, 21 years on, repeating the same gruesome imagery over and over again, as if proof could be conjured through sheer theorizing.
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