Netflix's 'Casting JonBenét' Is Crass Exploitation But May Be Brilliant
The murder case of JonBenét Ramsey is one of the most horrific in American history. It centers on the brutal killing of a 6-year-old girl on Christmas day in her own home. Her death became the start of a three-ring circus of blame, speculation, and soap opera-like reveals. But 20 years later, her killer remains unknown; her family remains suspected and infamous. And we remain fascinated by the mysterious murder of a pint-sized beauty queen.
The 20th anniversary of JonBenét death has brought about a string of TV events, from Investigation Discovery’s JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery to Lifetime’s JonBenét’s Mother: Victim or Killer?, and Dr. Phil’s interview with her surviving brother Burke Ramsey. And while I’m an admitted addict of true crime docs, I didn’t watch a single one. Maybe it’s because I still crisply remember seeing JonBenét’s angelic face on every magazine cover when I was her age and accompanying my mother to the grocery store. Maybe it’s because there’s little chance at justice for her, with so much time passed, and the investigation so badly bungled from its start. While some cases can bring a catharsis with their closing, there’s nothing but awful that can come from the story of a little girl who was beaten in the head, and then strangled by a garrote until she suffocated. At the time, parents clucked about beauty pageants, as if the problematic pastime put a target on the beaming blonde girl’s head. But we’ve still got no answers, yet plenty of material for parent-shaming, as the new Netflix doc Casting JonBenét makes clear.
I finally caved to watching Casting JonBenét, because of this intriguing trailer.
From this, I thought the doc would show dueling re-enactments with different actors to explore the many theories that arose in the public discussion of the case. Was it a terrorist group who killed her in a ransom gone wrong? Was it her nine-year-old brother out of grotesque sibling rivalry? Was it her mother Patsy, jealous of the promising beauty queen future that lay ahead of JonBenét? Or was it her father John Bennett Ramsay, who some suggest had an inappropriate relationship with his darling daughter?
Casting JonBenét will not answer these questions. It will only pose them, and not through interviews with experts in psychology or forensics, or cops or those close to the family. Instead, it features interviews with the many, many actors brought in to play the Ramsays and the surrounding figures of the murder investigation, like the Boulder, Colorado sheriff and the pedophile who confessed to the crime. It’s a wild theory extravaganza that asks re-enactors their theories in a series of “How do you see your character” audition videos. Which might be blithely interesting, if we were talking about a fictional murder case, like And Then There Were None. But when they are talking about a real tragedy and real people, it becomes sinister spectacle and reckless speculation.
In jarring interview montages, actors score screentime by declaring it was JonBenét’s bedwetting that pushed Patsy to strangle her, or postulating that Patsy walked in on John raping the girl. No one seriously considers the terrorist angle, considering the bizarrely long ransom note that was written on the family’s kitchen notepad and seemingly in Patsy’s handwriting. But why not blame the hired Santa Claus from the Christmas party? Making matters more unnerving, writer/director Kitty Green punctuates this ruthless frenzy of brutal brainstorming with some truly tasteless “jokes.”
For one, a Patsy flatly dismisses that Burke could have killed JonBenét, explaining a 9-year-old doesn’t have the physical strength to smash in a 6-year-old’s skull with a flashlight. Then Green coldly cuts to a series of Casting JonBenét’s Burkes, each attacking a small watermelon with a flashlight. Wearing a protective poncho and goggles, the boys laugh, thinking what a silly game to play, not realizing they are acting out a horrific homicide scenario. Similarly, Green abruptly shifts from the theories of would-be onscreen sheriffs to one such mustachioed man—and self-proclaimed “sex educator”—eagerly explaining his kinks, which include “breast torture” and flogging. What does this have to do with the subject at hand? I was left to wonder.
Casting JonBenét rejects traditional documentary elements, like title cards or expert commentary. Instead of exploring where the case’s facts lead us today, Green exhibits rumors, presumptions, and passionate opinions of strangers so she might explore the case not from a place of facts, but public perception. In the finale sequence, all the Patsys and John Bennetts spin about a shared set of the Ramsey home, acting out simultaneous potential re-enactments. A John weeps wildly curled into a fetal position in his child’s bed. A Patsy bawls on the floor of the bathroom, her mouth a perfect O of agony. A John and Patsy run into a hallway, and collapse on top of each other, lost in grief. A John and Patsy scream at each other, their argument unheard and fittingly mysterious. Then, one of the smiling little girls who happily lined up to play the doomed JonBenét does an eerie dance number, as if performing for one last pageant on the now empty soundstage. Then the credits roll. And I sat there, disgusted and furious, cursing my wasted time and the movie’s crass exploitation of a child’s murder.
Casting JonBenét offered me no answers, no new information. It gave me only the rehashings of theories and the criticisms of the Ramsays that I’ve heard for decades. But as I write this review, I realize that’s what Green wants. She expects her audience to tune in because of this case’s ghoulish allure. She wants us to confront how so much of what we “know” comes not from a place of truth or expert testimony, but from personal prejudice, prejudice against beauty pageants, the wealthy whose homes are big enough to hide such tragedy, domineering moms, or even the men who play mall Santas. This doc is meant to be enraging. It sets out to sicken us for the ways we still make excuses, for the way we still tsk-tsk at the Ramseys from cozy pedestals of distance and judgment, for the way we still loathe yet drool over this infamous crime.
Casting JonBenét speaks to our fears of what darkness might lurk in our parents, partners, and neighbors. It speaks to the guilt that lies in the gut of every parent who feels that at some point they failed their child. It speaks to a feeling of helplessness that attempts to push these tragedies away with various shamings, like slut-shaming and parent-shaming. The film’s exploitation of this tragedy is exactly its point. Through it, Casting JonBenét becomes a documentary that holds up a mirror to the society that didn’t seek answers in the death of this poor little girl as much as we sought someone to blame.
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