Director: Kitty Green
Cast: Hannah Cagwin, Jerry Cortese, Teresa Cocas
Watch Casting JonBenet online in the UK: Netflix UK
In December 1996, six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found dead in her home. The young beauty pageant queen had been strangled, her skull crushed. Which makes it all the more unnerving when a young girl looking just like her appears on camera – then, after introducing herself, asks if we know who did it. 20 years on, nobody does.
It sounds like the basis of a familiar documentary. In the wake of Serial and Making a Murderer, true crime films and TV shows have become more prolific than ever. But Casting JonBenet is far from your typical documentary, and the mystery at its heart isn’t what happened to Ramsey, but why we want to know so badly.
Playing out like a companion piece to the similarly fascinating (and equally innovative) Kate Plays Christine, Casting JonBenet spends its runtime auditioning people to take on the roles of the crime’s key players in a non-existent film. It’s less Kate Plays Christine and more Hannah Plays JonBenet or Jerry Plays the Local Police Chief. We don’t get an expert talking head or a voiceover explaining the historical context; we get a bald man chatting on camera about his other job, which mostly involves whips and kinky sex toys.
There’s a darkly intriguing humour to the resulting parade of eccentric people, but there’s a disturbingly recognisable quality to the way they each use their own life stories to identify with the Ramsey case – one woman trying out to play JonBenet’s mum clutches her own beauty pageant photos, as if that will give her some insight into what Mrs. Ramsey was thinking at the time. There’s a uniquely professional authority that goes with their conjecture, but aside from how comfortable they are empathising on camera, it often feels no different to talking down the pub to local residents who still gossip about the time that maybe that father was in a secret sex ring, or maybe that mother got carried away punishing her daughter. “It was the biggest thing to happen to Boulder in a very long time,” says one.
The participants’ comments give us more insights into their own personalities than those of the case in hand – the very fact that so many people are keen to participate in this project is revealing in itself. The result is a mesmerising mesh of myths being forged and generations being influenced by a trauma in their community’s past; an exercise in turning a true life tragedy into an urban legend.
Shooting over 15 months, Green pieces together the puzzle about the puzzle with unerring precision, from the subtle exposition of the murder details in the opening 10 minutes right down to the chilling moment young actors auditioning to play JonBenet’s brother (also a possible suspect) are asked to smash a watermelon with a hammer. It’s the kind of thing that challenges you to interpret the evidence, while simultaneously undermining the act of doing so altogether – a brilliantly provocative examination of what happens when nobody really knows the facts.
The dizzying tapestry of half-truths climaxes in a jaw-dropping montage of possible versions of events overlapping and intersecting, like a remake of Making a Murderer by Charlie Kaufman. It’s a bravura piece of cinema that turns a real crime scene into a living museum of breathing ghosts and haunting reenactments – an endless cycle of speculation, rumour and morbid onlookers that we’ve partly helped to create. If it were a TV series, like FX’s American Crime Story, you can bet there’d be a sequel.
Casting JonBenet is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.