JonBenet Ramsey was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1996 in Boulder, Colorado. The result of such tragedy was an outpouring of national concern, confusion, and curiosity. The morning after Christmas, in such a fine neighborhood? A ransom note of such fierce specificity and familiarity? Pineapple? As more details were released, the police department began to drown, and the media transformed into a feeding frenzy: who was where when and how do we know? Americans, in true Hellenistic fashion, were desperate to know the truth and to receive justice, though such a reception was fading further and further into unlikelihood. JonBenet’s death marked a tremendous loss of innocence in this country, and twenty years later, the most unfortunate revelation post-mortem is now being exposed through the sort of earnest self-reflection presented in Casting JonBenet: the crumbling of American sanity, focus, and prioritization.
The film’s vibrational tone is eerie at premise. The name JonBenet is notorious enough to make appear unsolicited mind-images of a battered six-year-old pageant girl and her grieving family. I felt myself sigh in emotional preparation at the title card. Unexpectedly, for the first fifty percent of the film, that ghostly mood rides on the underbelly: not at the center of attention, but never entirely absent either. The audience is introduced to these new, quirky people (none of whom are actually portraying the infamous Patsy or John, so they are entirely guiltless) and their new, quirky lives. They unintentionally bring light to the otherwise dark material with their honesty and commitment to the performative task. People are hilariously delusional creatures, and director Kitty Green captures and uses this characteristic well, which proves advantageous to the film’s “people are crazy” undertone.
Somewhere near the forty-five minute mark is when a tonal shift takes place. Some would assert that there is no such thing due to the subtlety employed by a well-versed director. I insist that it not only exists, but is in fact the most intelligent aspect of this film. The “actors” are midway through their personal connections to the JonBenet Ramsey case; the audience has been officially introduced to all participating players as well as all vital information pertinent to the case, and the action stalls. The music becomes elongated and repetitive, predictable, as does the storytelling. This strange flow of energy perfectly parallels the American public’s reaction and re-reaction to the JonBenet Ramsey case: all notable information has been presented; all suspects have been announced, the case examined and re-examined, and no resolution has ever been reached. Due to the nature of the event – horrific, mind-boggling, and profitable – the case was never allowed to go cold, so the case, the American public, and the action all stagnated.
That image of nine red-clad Patsys pacing the stage of a low-lit black-box stands out as the ultimate symbol of manic desperation. Those women are consumed in their own grief; they are distracted by their own duties. They talk to themselves; they are self-criticizing, self-absorbed, expressing dissent, expressing confusion. Those women are us.
An aspect of the film that troubled and then delighted was the fleeting image of the little JonBenet girls. Unlike the other characters (can you call them that?), the JonBenets had no interviews and shared no personal stories; they only appeared in short vignettes of childish dancing or playing. Spooky, yes, but confusing due to the title and her deification of sorts. JonBenet is the subject of many conspiracy theories, training booklets, and memes; she is valued as a national treasure, and her murder is held in the same unfortunate place as Amityville and Winchester. Her image in Casting JonBenet is tightly controlled and restrained, to avoid exploitation or perhaps to maintain her childhood innocence. It is well-known in the filmmaking industry that whatever the audience cannot see will always be more frightening and more impactful; the human mind knows how to torture itself better than any Hollywood director. The result of a harmless, blameless child appearing and then disappearing in a moment – a child we know was brutally murdered nonetheless – is an unsettling experience, and I can’t help but think that’s what Kitty Green wanted.