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Casting JonBenet: a true crime masterpiece that questions what is ‘true’

This astonishing documentary is less about the infamous murder of the six-year-old in 1996, and more about everyone who has obsessed over the case ever since

From Kitty Green's film Casting JonBenet.
‘The actors are not exactly presenting as themselves, nor entirely as other characters: they’re auditioning for roles in a production about JonBenét’s murder’ … From Kitty Green's film Casting JonBenet. Photograph: Michael Latham/Netflix
‘The actors are not exactly presenting as themselves, nor entirely as other characters: they’re auditioning for roles in a production about JonBenét’s murder’ … From Kitty Green's film Casting JonBenet. Photograph: Michael Latham/Netflix

Netflix’s synopsis for this astonishingly good 2017 documentary reads: “A mystery enveloped in myth and memory. And countless voices weigh in on what ‘really’ happened.”

Those quotation marks around “really” speak to Casting JonBenet’s key message: no one can deliver a truthful account of the unsolved murder of six-year-old child beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey, found dead in the basement of her home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996. Casting JonBenet, which is for my money the greatest true crime production to date, acknowledges that the interviewees, the director, Kitty Green, and indeed virtually everybody in the world, do not know what actually happened in the Ramseys’ basement that day.

Casting JonBenet reflects an argument once espoused by Buckminster Fuller: “‘Reality’ should always be in quotations”; so too, Green may reason, should the “true” in “true crime”. The Australian film-maker (whose oeuvre includes the masterful #MeToo drama The Assistant) questions the very foundation of the genre by considering the phenomenon of this case as a manifestation of a human impulse as old as time: oral storytelling. For ever since we first began gathering around campfires, narrativising has transformed reality into legend and people into myths.

The documentary opens with a shot of empty chairs, soon filled by young girls in identical costumes, dressed as JonBenét. The actors who appear throughout the running time are not exactly presenting as themselves, nor entirely as other characters: they’re auditioning for roles in a production about JonBenét’s murder, unaware that their audition footage will form the crux of the film they think they’re going to make later.

These actors not only read out lines, but go on, and on, and on about the details of case, offering endless commentary on everything about it: potential suspects, the ransom note found at the murder scene, the character and temperament of JonBenét’s family – all as if their views on these issues mattered.

Well into this onslaught of gossip and speculation, a woman auditioning for the role of Patsy, JonBenét’s mother, mentions a man dressed as Santa at a party the family attended, and suggests he “maybe could have done it”. Green then cuts to a brisk series of interviews with department store Santas, one of whom claims his profession evokes a kind of nirvana: “You get addicted to the love very quickly … it’s more addictive than heroin.”

This funny moment might seem superfluous, but it highlights a trajectory pursued in various storytelling professions, from journalism to academia to the police: take a lead, follow it, assemble a narrative and follow a logical path to arrive at a potentially absurd conclusion.

In another interview, one actor, who claims to be a “fugitive recovery agent” by day and sex educator by night, reveals – apropos of nothing – his sexual peccadilloes, such as his love of “breast torture” and “whipping nipples”. In a different production this moment might feel preposterously incongruous, but here it serves a point: this weirdo’s bedroom reflections are just as valid – or invalid – as these people’s uninformed commentary on this murder. It’s all just content: more information to rearrange in an endless quest for order in a continuously chaotic universe.

Casting JonBenet contains many meta moments, none more so than the scenes of multiple actors interpreting the same scenario and playing the same characters on clearly artificial sets. When the men auditioning for the role of John Ramsey, JonBenét’s father, perform the moment he found his daughter’s body, a range of potential emotional responses are canvassed: one actor quietly cries; one gasps and struggles to contain himself; another sobs loudly. It is a powerful reminder of the inherent fiction in any kind of dramatisation. When artists claim their work is “based on a true story”, what they really mean is that they’ve searched for emotional truth, rather than having achieved the impossible task of recreating actual events.

Particularly in its final moments, Casting JonBenet takes on some of the self-reflexive spirit of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a brilliantly sad and surreal picture about a theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who builds a huge soundstage and recruits actors to live and perform there as he blurs the line between life and artistic artifice. Like Kaufman, but with a style and chutzpah all her own, Green chips away at the idea that human performances simultaneously construct and dismantle reality – or perhaps that should read “reality.”