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Film Review: ‘Casting JonBenét’

Variety logo Variety 4/28/2017 Peter Debruge
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What is it that so fascinates people about the case of JonBenét Ramsey, the six-year-old beauty pageant princess who was found murdered in her own basement? Thousands of hours have already been dedicated to covering the story via TV news and true-crime movies, but Australian director Kitty Green’s high-concept documentary “Casting JonBenét” breaks fresh ground, probing the public, rather than family members or suspects (often the same thing).

This enticingly original project — which premiered at Sundance and is now available on Netflix — presents itself as a series of casting-session interviews with actors being considered for the principal roles in yet another film on the subject, and by alternating between their best guesses as to what happened and revelations about details from their personal lives (history of abuse, loss, and sexual perversion), it begins to penetrate why this particular tabloid phenomenon resonated so profoundly with Americans.

More than two decades after JonBenét’s death, we still don’t know who killed her … and we probably never will. Was it one of her family? A kidnap attempt gone wrong? The work of a pederast sex cult? Less interested in definitive answers than the questions themselves, Green stages limited reenactments of a few key scenes, exaggerated to resemble Errol Morris’ true-crime “The Thin Blue Line,” though the biopic is a decoy. Instead, the film’s primary content is the audition footage itself — which may or may not be scripted, and seems to benefit from extensive pre-screening at the very least.

The first face we see is practically a dead-ringer for young JonBenét, minus the curly blonde bouffant. Generally speaking, however, Green tends to ignore the child actors in favor of the adults, who were relatively young when it happened, now old enough to play father John, mother Patsy, the Boulder police chief, and the quack who (falsely) took credit, John Mark Karr. While that deprives the movie of what could have been its most fascinating dimension — specifically, analyzing the stage-parent dynamic between adults who push their kids to appear in movies, and comparing that to Patsy’s obvious need to project her own pageant dreams onto her daughter — it does yield a fascinating new way to appreciate where this notorious crime fits in the grand tapestry of contemporary American narcissism.

Superficially speaking, the auditions might just as well be man-on-the-street interviews conducted in Times Square. On closer analysis, there is something truly inspired about asking actors to do the speculating. After all, part of their job is to put themselves in the mind of their characters. That process requires a mix of psychology, intuition, memory, and research in order to understand the roles they play, and it’s (mostly) fascinating to hear how this mix of actors draws from all those sources to understand the key players in the case.

To hear them recap what they can remember from the long-ago case is to witness the way an urban legend assumes a life of its own. One doesn’t watch “Casting JonBenét” to get the facts of the case, but rather, to see how misinformation has blossomed into its own narrative. And yet, these actors supply a wealth of insights many of us have never considered before. One of the actresses auditioning to play Patsy lived just down the street from where it happened, while another was herself a former beauty queen (with the headshots to prove it). A candidate trying out for John’s part brings insights from his time in prison, and one of the police chief contenders earns big laughs when describing his second job as a “sexual educator” — which makes him uniquely qualified to introduce one of the kinkier theories about what could have happened.

Speaking of theories, one that doesn’t seem to go away is that perhaps JonBenét’s brother Burke killed her by accident, and the family cooked up an elaborate story (staging the basement crime scene, writing the three-page ransom note) to cover for him. Green spends more time on this character than she does on the JonBenét auditions, which finally arrive nearly 45 minutes in.

With the boys who might play Burke, Green asks three young actors to demonstrate how they might crush the girl’s skull by hammering a watermelon with a heavy flashlight. It’s macabre, but effective, although such stunts raise a bizarre paradox: To some degree, all these actors serve as a kind of unofficial jury, evaluating hearsay in order to reach their own verdicts, while at the same time, the movie is inviting us to weigh the “evidence” it puts forward and draw our own conclusions (much of which is beyond bizarre, as when a man auditioning to play Santa Claus explains why they are required to wear white gloves: “It’s much easier to identify where your hands are”).

Finally, after sharing a handful of surreal, highly stylized reenactments — dad discovering JonBenét’s body, the cop driving to the scene of the crime — Green pulls back and reveals the entire Ramsey house set crawling with nearly all the actors whom we’ve seen audition to date. The device points to the infinite possible explanations, as each one seems to represent what might have happened in different parallel dimensions as a camera tracks across the scene (while another camera captures it all from still father back).

In this moment, the already meta documentary takes on an even more archly self-aware quality, inviting us to broaden our free-associations to the realm of how other TV and film projects have approached the case and, should your mind choose to go there, why we can’t seem to let go of this insidious tabloid tragedy. Of course, you could just turn off the set, but then you’d miss all the wild new ideas Green’s out-of-the-box experiment brings to the table.

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