Watching the highly stylized, editorial-free documentaries The Act of Killing & Room 237 a few years ago felt like witnessing the dawn if a new era in the medium. Instead of following traditional models that pack documentaries with talking heads interviews & Wikipedia-in-motion historical summation, Oppenheimer & Ascher’s films simply record oral history-style input from their subjects, free of judgement, and match the false memories, conspiracy theories, and outright fantasies of those interviews with striking cinematic imagery. I’ve only seen the impact of those two seminal works echoed in a few projects since – including the recent docs Beware the Slenderman & Swagger and Ascher’s own The Nightmare – but I still feel that their influence can only grow exponentially from there. The Netflix-distributed documentary Casting JonBenét is a clear addition to this new post-modernist documentary landscape. Instead of a typical true crime documentation of the mysterious disappearance and murder of the six year old beauty pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsey in the 1990s, the film exists as an abstracted art piece & loose collection of conspiracy theories surrounding the case. Its humor is uncomfortable. Its dedication to a style over substance ethos may seem immediately at odds with a documentary’s function of capturing “the truth.” Yet, the film’s loose collection of unsubstantiated claims & theories surrounding the Ramsey murder case seemingly reveals much more perception & impact on its immediate community & the hive mind at large than a straightforward, Dateline NBC-style documentary on the subject ever could.
Like The Act of Killing, Casting JonBenét builds its narrative around an insular community re-enacting a past atrocity from its own history. Colorado area actors & pageant competitors audition for key roles in a fictional feature film about the JonBenét Ramsey murder case: the police, the parents, JonBenét herself, etc. Some of the people auditioning personally knew the Ramseys at the time of the murder, some happened to live nearby, and some are only familiar with the case by way of national headlines & supermarket tabloids. Everyone has a take on what happened to JonBenét, however, and the movie blends reality with speculation by recording each & every theory they give voice to between audition takes of reading actual Ramsey dialogue from press conferences & police records. The interviewees documented here will both lay extremely judgemental criticism on the Ramseys’ parenting style (even supposing that they killed their own daughter because she frequently wet her bed) and claim the only reason the mother was considered a prime suspect was because of sexist scrutiny. Wild conspiracy theories about child porn rings and child beauty pageant prostitution are discussed in hushed tones. Claims that JonBenét’s nine year old brother may have killed her are harshly juxtaposed with actual nine year old boys simply being children. The overall result is oddly humanizing. The Ramseys, guilty or not, were ultimately ordinary people, as real and mundane as the actors who dress like them for this film’s interviews. National news coverage has a way of abstracting that truth, but it hits with full impact here while young girls dressed like JonBenét giggle & eat cookies between auditioning their terrified screams. There’s no actual photographs or footage of the real life Ramseys to be found in Casting JonBenét and the more I watched different interpretations of their press conferences mimicked & picked apart by various actors the more I realized I no longer have any idea what they actually looked like. The overall effect of that abstraction both points to how dehumanizing the court of public opinion is and questions how that kind of national curiosity & speculation could ever lead the public closer to the truth of what happened to JonBenét.
The most immediately striking aspects of Casting JonBenét are its gleefully inappropriate humor and its dreamlike imagery. Because it documents the wild conspiracy theories of so many Colorado weirdos the film often plays like a Toddlers & Tiaras-inspired riff on mockumentaries like Drop Dead Gorgeous and Waiting for Guffman. The film heavily leans into that flippantly comedic tone too, mixing one of the actors auditioning to play a sheriff discussing the details of his work as a dom in the BDSM community with the murder case speculations of his fellow interviewees. Besides Casting JonBenét‘s general humor in blankly voicing the outlandish conspiracy theories of anyone who wants to talk for the camera, the film also interrupts questions of whether a nine year old boy could crush a six year old girl’s head with footage of actual nine year olds splitting open watermelons with a heavy flashlight. The absurdist humor of that moment immediately dives into traumatic horror once it registers exactly what the melon represents, which is indicative of how the film’s comedic tone works overall. The film’s nightmarish, almost Lynchian imagery also takes a while to fully register and doesn’t reach its full crescendo until the concluding ten minutes, a The Red Shoes-style centerpiece that retroactively brings the documentary’s entire vision into intense focus. Absolutely insane shots of multiple Ramseys impersonators dressed alike and simultaneously populating the same sound stage recreation of JonBenét’s real life house setting not only allows for the film’s myriad of theories of what happened on the night of her murder to overlap & self-contradict; it also frankly just looks cool. There’s an open admission to the public’s morbid fascination with real life murder mystery at the heart of the film’s lyrical style over substance climax that both feels incredibly honest & oddly revelatory for a film that plays fast & loose with “facts.”
Early in Casting JonBenét, a young girl auditioning to play the titular victim in the documented fictional film about her real life murder directly asks her interviewer (and the camera), “Do you know who killed JonBenét Ramsey?” I’m not convinced that anyone truly does and if this documentary does anything exceptionally well it’s in exposing the slippery, intangible nature of that truth. The curiosity & slight terror in the young girl’s eyes as she asks that question, dressed like JonBenét herself, is also both chilling & easy to relate to. For all of Casting JonBenét‘s bells & whistles as a post-modernist work that bucks the rigidity of documenting the truth by deliberately blending reality with pure speculation, it’s an ultimately humanizing work. The film indulges plenty of transgressive humor & style over substance imagery, but it also democratizes the visage of the Ramseys in a way that reclaims their personas from public curiosity to once again become everyday people. That’s especially important for JonBenét in particular and I greatly admire the way the film contextualizes her as a real life little girl again, among its other more immediate surface pleasures.