A Netflix Original, and one that shows their strength in the documentary market. Casting JonBenet is not the usual run of the mill documentary that gets released on one of those odd channels on Sky. This documentary portrays one of the most famous child murder cases ever and was first introduced at the Sundance film festival.
What’s it about?
There is no point in reviewing this without explaining the story. This is a well-known case that sensationally grabbed the world media, conjuring obsessed conspiracy theories, public debate, and affected those in the local area. In 1996, JonBenet Ramsey, a six-year old beauty pageant contestant, was brutally murdered in her own home during the Christmas holidays. Her bloody, strangled body was found in the cellar in Boulder, Colorado. Despite the murder happening so close to home, the crime is still unsolved today. Why were people so fascinated by this murder, you ask? Well, the theory is that JonBenet was a very attractive, photogenic young girl that had won many pageants in the past. This justification is sadly strange, but it was enough to become a media narrative. This provides remnants of the OJ Simpson case, where the media becomes more important than the investigation itself, and locally it affects the people – an obsession that is clearly highlighted in this documentary. At the time, there was a growing suspicion that the parents murdered their daughter despite the forensic evidence, which apparently cleared them of any crime. There are other theories as well from so-called experts, but I could spend all day discussing these.
So what’s it actually about?
Before I state whether I think it is any good it is better to understand how director Kitty Green filmed this documentary. Casting JonBenet documents the casting of a fictional film of something that looks like a dark true crime story. The casting choices were specific and they had to be from the local area of the unsolved crime. The actors are seen performing the roles of the real people involved in the case including John and Patsy Ramsey, Burke Ramsey, John Mark Karr, and Boulder police officials. Sometimes these actors are performing their audition, or a fictionalised scene of the case, or giving their feelings and speculation of the investigation at the time. Some of their feelings reek of a conspiracy. The purpose is to convey to the audience the impact the case had. The use of using local actors near to the case is intentional because it is a clear indictment of the obsession in the area at the time. Making a Murderer uses the exact same component, with media being a clear sickly influence that toys with the credibility of the justice system. There is a unique demonstration to what Green is trying to teach the audience. Firstly, that true crime stories can have a direct effect on those closely linked to it. The local actors that are part of this auditioning experiment will have been close to this case for almost 20 years, so there is undoubtedly an opinion that they will air. I guess the point is, how do you perform a character in an unsolved crime case? Secondly, it proves sensationalism at best as the actors all provide a different portrayal of the same person. And finally, that the truth is not in the unsolved crime itself but in the people, which have a direct effect on true crime stories which change public perception over time.
Is it any good?
This documentary depends on the taste of the audience member. Frustratingly the entire feature is speculative. There are no real answers. You could make your own conclusion about the auditions and the portrayals they are trying to bring to surface but everything is grossly subjective. You do get answers but you learn nothing new. This is purely an experiment piece by the director to understand how local actors will react to something that still remains unsolved in their area today, and how it becomes sick and twisted in the local media. Some of these actors are convinced that the parents murdered their child purely by the way they performed their audition, and some showed a clear emotional outlet, one that would occur after the loss of a child. The most disturbing part of the documentary is one that leans towards another conspiracy, that the 10-year-old young brother did it. Can someone really that young smash a young girl’s head with a large blunt rod? Well, clearly one of the actors demonstrated that quite well with a watermelon. For some, this documentary will provoke what they think about their relationship with sensationalised media stories and for others, you will not be moved by this. It really depends on how caught up you get as an individual with stories like this in the media.
So you didn’t like it?
No, I did not. There is another thing that this documentary proves. That media outlets capitalise on crime investigations that are high in emotion. They ensure that the public feed off of their stories and make it more sensational as the story progresses like one giant moving snowball. That is nothing new. Ironically, director Kitty Green capitalises on emotions in this documentary to prove all this, but there is no real exploitation, no answer and, in my opinion, no real point to this experiment. We already know that America is obsessed with an over-the-top-spectacle and gruesome crime. In the end, all you have is a documentary about the casting of actors for a true crime story who give their versions of events through the medium of acting.
So you wouldn’t recommend?
I prefer straight to the point documentaries that attempt to draw out facts from real or closely related sources. In other words, I like an output, a conclusion or a result. This smells of pretentiousness and relies on actors to give themselves a good account of how they feel either through their own opinion or their actual acting. This does not resonate with me and I felt the exact same way when I watched My Scientology Movie where Louis Theroux attempts the exact same thing. Luckily for him, that documentary has a very fortunate twist that turns it into something else. However, if you like this gourmet style of documentary then go ahead. I will definitely not be wasting my time again.
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Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.