Review: ‘Casting JonBenet’ Revisits a 1996 Murder

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Hannah Cagwin in “Casting JonBenet,” a nonfiction movie directed by Kitty Green. Credit Netflix

The conceit of the vacuous nonfiction movie “Casting JonBenet” is simple. Several dozen professional and nonprofessional actors audition onscreen for roles in the movie you’re watching, which is pegged to the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty-pageant contestant from Boulder, Colo., who became a post-mortem media sensation. Her murder remains unsolved, which hasn’t stopped its exploitation. The director Kitty Green’s big idea here is to explore the tragedy and its aftershocks through the reactions of actors playing those involved in the case, including JonBenet’s parents. Some girls — smiling, dressed and made up as little beauty contestants — play JonBenet.

Ms. Green doesn’t bother with the usual nonfiction signposts; there is no accompanying text or voice-over to serve as a guide. Instead, she records one performer after another on various soundstage sets who usually sit or occasional stand facing the camera, reciting (or reading) dialogue or holding forth on the real case. When speaking freely, some offer theories, a few darkly sensationalistic and sinister; a few theorists seem reasonable, but others come across as preposterous. Some seem to sympathize with the Ramseys, while others voice biases against the family. Some participants appear detached; still others register as deeply engaged, speaking about the case with an air of authority.


Movie Review: ‘Casting JonBenet’

The Times critic Manhola Dargis reviews “Casting JonBenet.”

By MEG FELLING and ROBIN LINDSAY on Publish Date April 27, 2017. Photo by Netflix/Netflix, via Associated Press…

Ms. Green moves from actor to actor, moment to moment smoothly, sometimes with vaguely sinister lighting, camerawork and music. The vibe is vaguely Errol Morris lite, though several setups suggest she also admires the fine-art photographer Gregory Crewdson, known for his moody, staged tableaus of suburban and small-town surrealism. It’s a handsome package that never transcends the banality of its ideas, most of which involve how different people, including from Boulder, were affected by the case. This is somewhat interesting for 30 or so minutes but grows grindingly obvious as we’re reminded again and again that people have feelings and opinions, some dubious.

For the most part, Ms. Green does not obviously engage with her participants, but instead lets them talk into the camera. Every so often, a performer drifts or rushes into an apparent digression, as when one, who self-identifies as a “sex educator,” pulls out a few of his flogging whips and begins twirling them. It’s the kind of moment that another director might have cut. Ms. Green, by contrast, seems to believe that this moment adds something (outré humor, perhaps), but she doesn’t indicate what it might have to do with the rest of her movie or with the Ramsey case. This forces viewers to fill in the uninteresting blanks using her earlier cues and their own imaginations.

That kind of filmmaking reserve or perhaps simply coyness is a stale tactic, one that too often gestures at nonexistent complexity. It’s a familiar game — call it theorizing by proxy for meaning by proxy — in which a filmmaker waves toward an idea, say, Brecht’s concept of the alienation or estrangement effect, without doing any actual hard, intellectual work. “Casting JonBenet” is filled with such ritualistic gestures that signal the movie has things of merit to say about assorted well-trod themes: identity as performance; performance as identity; the reproduction of gossip; the impact of media sensationalism; the sexualization of young girls; and that biggie, the United States. The only substantive conclusion, though, is that murder can be endlessly exploited.


Children in “Casting JonBenet,” a nonfiction movie directed by Kitty Green. Credit Netflix

The question of whether the movie exploits JonBenet’s death is obvious; of course it does. The better question is whether it’s meaningful exploitation. To that end, consider the scene in which a few boys performing as JonBenet’s 9-year-old brother try to smash a melon with a flashlight while wearing goggles and rain gear. A couple succeed, and one boy eats a bit of melon. The idea, presumably, is to see whether one child could smash another child’s head in. The ridiculousness of the scene — and the melon — suggests that Ms. Green believes there’s something absurd about all of this, including the desire to know what happened. It also suggests that she lacks compassion. Vulgar in the extreme, the scene invites us to laugh, which is probably easier to do if you ignore the child who died.

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