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‘Casting JonBenet’ Trains Its Eye on the Public

The Netflix documentary aims to study the theories of regular people about the infamous unsolved 1996 case of the killing of a 6-year-old girl. But in doing so, it can’t help but feel exploitative.

(Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer illustration)

"To those of you who may want to ask, let me address very directly: I did not kill my daughter JonBenet."

These are the words of John Ramsey, who is sitting with his wife, Patsy, as they address the press in May 1997, five months after the killing of their 6-year-old daughter.

They’ve come to defend themselves.

"I’m appalled that anyone would think that John or I would be involved in such a hideous, heinous crime," says Patsy, with deliberate slowness, as cameras click away in the background. "But let me assure you that I did not kill JonBenet. I did not have anything to do with it. I love that child with my whole of my heart and soul."

Despite the circumstances — which by the time of this press conference included not only their daughter’s senseless killing but also the swirling tides of public suspicion that someone in the family, be it John, Patsy, or their young son, Burke, was responsible — they seem calm. Together, even. Their voices are measured. Their feelings and gestures are controlled to a fault. "Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey," a journalist asks, "what do you want to say to the killer of your daughter?" "We’ll find you," John says. "We will find you. I have that as a sole mission for the rest of my life." "Mrs. Ramsey?" the journalist asks. "Likewise," Patsy says.

If you’re looking for a tell, you’ve likely already found it. People tuning in to this conference in 1997 undoubtedly wanted more from the Ramseys than an "I didn’t do it," a "We will find you," or — worst of all — a "Likewise." We wanted passion, or rage, or a crying fit, or any external sign that the Ramseys were reacting to their daughter’s death the way we imagine we would react. In other words, we wanted a performance that confirmed for us that the Ramseys were either human or inhuman, guilty or not. Without it, we remain uncertain — and uncertainty breeds suspicion.

Casting JonBenet, a new documentary released by Netflix last Friday, won’t do anything to ease that suspicion. It’s nominally a true-crime documentary about the JonBenet Ramsey killing. But its real subject isn’t the case itself, but instead, us. The movie, directed by Kitty Green, is ostensibly a series of interviews with Coloradans auditioning for roles in a movie version of the Ramsey story. One by one, we see middle-aged men and women, many of them parents, step before the camera and confess to us who they are and how they’d approach their respective roles, as either Patsy, or John, or the police chief, or the neighborhood Santa Claus, or the suspect John Mark Karr. There are child auditionees too, of course, practicing for the role of JonBenet or her brother Burke, who was in some of the public’s eye the prime suspect all along.

It’s a curious endeavor. Our questions about the Ramseys’ behavior, and our inability to suss out what they were feeling, has made it easy to project our own ideas, theories, and experiences onto what happened. The documentary is a study of those projections. We see these men and women relate to their roles through their own real-life roles as parents, or their vague social connections to people involved in the case — some of them even lived nearby. They share their professions, their experiences in theater, and their impressions of the character they’re playing. And then they perform: Patsy’s 911 call, John Ramsey finding JonBenet’s body in the cellar, the police chief getting the initial call about the killing, John and Patsy’s press conference, and the night of JonBenet’s death.

These people are, it should be said, incredible to watch and often hilarious — it’s a movie that succeeds at, if nothing else, giving a warm sense of local color. You see enough of these actors to become familiar with their idiosyncrasies and their peculiar backstories, as well as the strange amount of thought they’ve put into their roles. "I have personal experience with murder," says one wild-eyed Patsy. "I’m normally cast as the loving mother — and also as ‘the bitch,’" says another. Most of the Patsys wear a red top akin to the one Patsy wore in one of the most famous images of the family, but one woman, making a point of detailing her thought process about the role, rolls in wearing a blazer and pearls. "For me," she says, "it’s about the pearls."

These actors, all of them amateur and some unexperienced, are learning and rehearsing scenes in a movie that doesn’t exist — or, rather, exists only for the sake of this documentary. Fans of experimental nonfiction will no doubt think of last year’s Kate Plays Christine, which follows the actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares for a role as Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter who committed suicide on air. As with Casting JonBenet, that movie doesn’t exist either: the point of the project is to explore the preparation. And what the Patsys and Johns of Green’s project reveal is the great extent to which it’s impossible to think about the JonBenet Ramsey case without thinking of ourselves. That’s the irony of asking, "Where were you when …?" It would seem to be a question about the event, but of course the emphasis is on you.

That’s what makes the actors’ speculations so intriguing. "Patsy was at least involved," one of the Patsys says. "I’m not sure if she did it." We cut to another Patsy who says: "I hope she didn’t." Pretty much everyone we see, meanwhile, thinks John is almost the real victim here. "I think he’s the innocent one," a John says, apparently speaking for many people. "I don’t believe he was involved in any way." It’s almost frightening to see how casually everyone floats their gruesome theories of child porn rings and motherly psychosis — as if failing to realize that the case is real, as is everyone who was affected by it.

There’s a nugget of an idea there, but the movie suffers from an inability, or an unwillingness, to really go anywhere with it. New auditionees are introduced as the old ones continue to openly speculate about what they believe happened — but then what? Green apparently has few ideas beyond that setup, leaving the documentary nowhere to go but inward, into the personal lives of the people it’s interviewing. The actors give more and more of themselves, to little apparent end. One woman tells a long story about almost being molested by a neighbor as a kid, as a way of explaining her feelings about the possible killer and abuser being "someone you know." Another recounts her brother’s brutal murder and her parents’ unpredictable strength in the face of it — evidence, in her eyes, that we can’t easily judge the Ramseys’ reaction to their daughter’s murder. Yet another woman opens up about losing three of her children. And a man auditioning for John Ramsey, reflecting on Patsy’s death from ovarian cancer, confesses to his own recent diagnosis of prostate cancer and how that makes him feel about not having children.

These are brave, startling confessions, and they’re also oddly frequent: the movie is insistent on sharing them with us. That bothered me. These confessions are seemingly meant to make us and the actors think about the nature of performance, and about the experiences and understanding — drawn both from their own lives and from the public narrative about the Ramsey family — they would bring to their roles. But after the woman tells her story about almost being molested, we don’t see her performance as Patsy Ramsey: we cut to another interview. The performance parts of each audition are reduced to quick (usually bad) snapshots, edited to pile up on top of each other in quick, sometimes humorous succession, like the post-credit outtakes of a comedy, but with moodier lighting.

It can’t help but feel exploitative. In an attempt to seem self-reflexive, the movie vampirically collects and draws from the actors’ experiences in order to make its own shoddily conceived points about "the public." But Green is a member of that public, too. For all she takes from her actors, Green gives very little of herself. And for all that her documentary has to say about the public, it has almost nothing to say about the media influencing that public — i.e., true-crime documentaries like this one.

So what you wind up watching is a bunch of amateur actors — normal people — overinvesting themselves in a project that doesn’t know how to take them, or their stories, as seriously as it might. The movie turns the spotlight back on the public, but doesn’t turn the spotlight back on itself. True-crime documentaries are as responsible as anything else for the perpetuation of certain theories in the public’s mind; reckoning with what the public thinks and feels should entail asking some questions about what got them there. That’s a true challenge — and Casting JonBenet, for its merits, isn’t up to it.