The still unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey continues to captivate media and audiences alike. When it was announced that Netflix would be releasing a new documentary about the case, it was met with some groans of ‘It’s been done’. Then the trailer dropped and it became clear that this was not going to be your average true crime documentary.
Re-enactments are the new black in documentaries today, with Casting JonBenet joining the likes of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, and Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. The re-enactments are used in such an interesting way however, that Casting JonBenet extends upon this trope.
As seen in the trailer above, Green interviews prospective actors as part of their auditions. Most lived in or around Boulder, Colorado at the time of the murder. They give their varied theories and suspicions, some based on the evidence available, some ostensibly based on hunches or rumours. The accusations against the family of JonBenet pile higher and higher.
Not only is the number of possibilities overwhelming, there is this strange dissonance when they are coming from people vying to play the part of someone in this story. Without any visible push from the director we see the unconscious bias we bring to cases such as these. Especially the idea that there is some sort of normal way to act when a loved one dies suddenly. Ideas of age and gender also come in to play with a lot of theories.
There is a profuse sense of self-awareness in the film, in particular awareness of staging in documentary. We often see the setting up of a scene, actors talking to each other, and there is a vast difference in framing between the interviews and the re-enactments. Little things that you might not immediately notice, but build up over the 80 minute running time.
The crescendo of reenactments is deeply unsettling, and equally self-aware.
Casting JonBenet is quietly defiant, magnificently shot, and cleverly put together. It is a must see for true crime enthusiasts, who may want to reconsider their obsession after watching.