Casting JonBenet (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Casting performers to play her and others

Netflix documentary film “Casting JonBenet” takes an unorthodox approach to an infamous unsolved murder case at its center. Because I am not familiar with that notorious case which happened almost 25 years ago, I was a bit disappointed to see that the documentary does not give much information except some basic details, but I was instead intrigued by its conventional approach, and that certainly distinguishes the documentary a lot from those countless run-of-the-mill true crime documentary flicks.

First, let me tell you a bit about the death of JonBenet Ramsey, who was only 6 years old when she was murdered in Denver, Colorado on the day after Christmas in 1996. At first, it seemed like she was kidnapped by somebody considering a ransom note found right after her disappearance, but then her body was found by her father in one of the basement spaces in the house, and the police as well as the media came to suspect her parents more once it became quite clear that she was hit in her head by a blunt instrument and then cruelly strangulated to the death.

Instead of interviewing Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey or any other people associated with the case, director/co-producer Kitty Green takes a different route for re-examining the case. She held the auditions for performers to JonBenet, her parents, and several other figures associated with the case, and we observe a number of auditionees, who are mostly from Colorado, trying their best in front of the camera. I do not know how much these auditionees were aware of Green’s plan, but they all look serious as trying to get their roles, and they also come to reveal themselves more while talking a little about why they were interested in the audition.

As listening to these people, we get to know a bit more about the case. As one auditionee pointed out, there was something quite fishy about that ransom note from the beginning, and the subsequent discovery of JonBenet’s body at her house strongly suggests that her parents were involved in her death, but there was not any strong evidence to incriminate them. To make matters worse, the Denver police made lots of mistakes in handling the case and the growing attention of the media, and a former Chicago cop, who incidentally auditions for the police chief of Denver, muses a little on how that case became a sort of good lesson to him and his fellow cops in Chicago at that time.

Meanwhile, the casting of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey turns out to be rather tricky as the auditionees have each own opinion and interpretation on Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey. While some of them think Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are guilty as suspected, others do not think so in contrast, and they all have different opinions on whether Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey and their kids were actually happy or not. Was Mr. Ramsey, who was a wealthy and respectable man on the surface, actually a pretty horrible father and husband to his family? Was Mrs. Ramsey, who was evidently narcissistic as shown from her eager attempt to push JonBenet into following her footsteps via child beauty pageant, really an abusive mother with some personality issue?

The key moment in the documentary comes from when several pairs of auditionees try to play Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey giving a public statement. As preparing themselves, the auditionees talk about how Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey looked strained and awkward at that time, and the documentary lets us to reflect more on these personal observations for a while instead of showing us real Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey delivering their public statement. I guess they probably looked really awkward, but was it really the sign of their guilt? Or, were they just too devastated and overwhelmed to act and behave as, uh, properly as expected by many others and the media at that time?

As the investigation was going nowhere, a number of rather wild and unbelievable speculations on the case naturally followed, and we hear about some of them. While it was possible that JonBenet was merely killed by an unknown intruder, one of the auditionees in the documentary claims that she was killed by someone involved with a hidden child prostitution organization, and some other auditionee even suggests that JonBenet’s father might have prostituted his own daughter.

There is also a creepy part involved with the casting for an actor to play some crazy dude who claimed that he killed JonBenet but then was eventually released not long after his arrest. One of the actors chosen to play this crazy dude looks fairly well-cast in my inconsequential opinion, and he surely exudes enough eerie vibe as doing some good acting in front of the camera, though I guess he is a nice guy in real life.

Even in the end, “Casting JonBenet” keeps revolving around the fringe of its main subject as before, and that will probably frustrate you a lot if you expect a conventional true crime documentary, but I think that is the point of the documentary. The truth will probably remain beyond our reach forever, and we will be still drawn to many baffling aspects of the case without any satisfactory answer just like many other infamous unsolved criminal cases out there. As directing her camera toward many different human feelings and thoughts over the case, Green gives us one interesting documentary experiment to watch, and its sublime finishing touch, which you must see for yourself, will linger on you for a while after it is over.

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