The story of JonBenét Ramsey’s 1996 murder and the subsequent investigation has crystalized into something that feels closer to fiction than fact. It has become a movie of itself: there are characters, costumes, quotes; there are moments we know are coming. This story has become an American legend, a dramatic, sequined mystery in full red, white, and blue. We wait for the moment that Patsy says through tears, “Keep your babies close to you.” We know the exact way she says it.
But it isn’t a movie line, at least, it wasn’t at first. If you even occasionally give in to your sensational side, you will have see a dozen Patsy Ramseys say this line, a dozen John Ramseys run into the wine cellar and fall to their knees beside JonBenét’s covered body. You will see a dozen little Burkes eating pineapple and milk. You’ll see a dozen creepy John Mark Karrs slouched in a jail cell. You’ll see it over and over again. If the question is whether or not Netflix's Casting JonBenét is an exploitive film, Manohla Dargis, reviewing for The New York Times, said it best: “The question of whether the movie exploits JonBenét’s death is obvious; of course it does. The better question is whether it’s meaningful exploitation.”
Australian director Kitty Green spent a year in the town of Boulder, Colorado making Casting JonBenét. She put out a casting call for a movie about the JonBenét case, and told the actors they could audition for any role they would like. When they arrived, she let them in on the real project, or at least, the loose idea.
In an interview with Vox, Green told writer Alissa Wilkinson, “There's so many JonBenét Ramsey TV specials, with actors playing her mother and father. I'm always thinking, how do you play Patsy Ramsey if you don't know if she's guilty or innocent? How do you approach that role? I basically wanted to focus on the community.”
She warned them that anything that they chose to share in interviews could be used in the film. She told them “It's an experiment, basically. And will you jump down the rabbit hole with us?” Those that stayed are featured in a series of interviews, some speaking of what they knew of the case as local in Boulder during that time, as well as playing out famous scenes from the narrative of the case.
Casting JonBenét assumes that you already know everything you need to know about the case. The goal is not to present new evidence or a new angle on old evidence. The goal, it seems, is to understand the ways in which we can’t help but project ourselves into the American mysteries that unite us, perhaps in an unfortunate way, but unite us nonetheless.
One of the most illuminating parts of this documentary was the way each actor showed empathy or suspicion toward John and Patsy. At times, their projections felt clear. One man spoke of his previous admiration for the successful CEO John Ramsey, and several other men seemed to soften at the thought of him, claiming that Patsy was the murderer, and John was just solemnly swept along.
Another man spoke softly of the idea that perhaps Patsy’s cancer, and disease itself (or dis-ease as he said, as if he had come up with that himself) is created by our emotional experiences. He cited that because Patsy killed JonBenét, the child she had carried in her womb, her 2006 death from ovarian cancer may have had a direct link to the guilt of that action.
Many of the women also seemed to find fault in Patsy, citing the likelihood that it was her who wrote the ransom note, her who seemed to be acting during public interviews (though to me, it seemed like she was usually on a cocktail of different anxiety medications). Patsy’s jealousy over her beautiful young daughter was mentioned at one point as a possible motive. One woman flipped through Patsy’s memoir, finding an apparent narcissism she missed the first time she read it.
Many women attempted to understand how a mother could kill her child. One recalled a time when her child had frustrated her so much she screamed at him. She felt remorse about it to this day. She noted that, even during the weakest moment of anger, she could never see herself killing her child.
At one point, a woman who is auditioning for Patsy tells us of her own loss of three children, while breaking down. Another conjures a single genuine tear for the purpose of the role, while thinking of finding her own daughter the way JonBenét was found. This is what makes Casting JonBenét a different kind of true crime documentary. It turns the camera around, it asks, What does this mean to you? Who does this make you?
So, who do we empathize with and why? How does this color our idea of guilt and innocence? These are questions that Casting JonBenét asks, without ever having to ask them. Green is absent from the film entirely, never heard asking questions or narrating a scene. The actors don’t seem to need much leading,
Green noted the American compulsion to open up, stating that in general, Australians are much more private people. Something else: American culture wants to know. We love a mystery but we can’t leave it at that, we have to be confident in our solution, even without the evidence needed for certainty. All one needs to do is watch this film to see the ways in which we create answers from the ether. The ways we may choose an answer based on who we are and what we already think of the world. Successful morose CEO John Ramsey, Patsy’s cancer of guilt, her jealousy-induced rage over her beautiful (six-year-old) daughter. What do these visions tell us about who we are?
We want to understand. We want to understand partially out of a morbid curiosity of course, but also because until we can understand, how can we stop this type of violence? Perhaps it is this case, the murder of a six-year-old girl that filled tabloids for most of my childhood, this case that has so many more questions than answers, so many holes and so many blank spaces. The lack of answers, of hard evidences, of reasons why, gives us a screen to project ourselves inside. Because when we do not understand something, what do we innately do? We try. For better or for worse.