CRIME CULTURE: Any unsolved crime, especially something as heinous as the murder of a child, is bound to attract speculation. The thought that a killer like that lurks among us is frightening and haunting. Perhaps that’s why Casting JonBenet manages to be so beguiling twenty years after the infamous and still unsolved murder of six-year-old pageant queen, JonBenet Ramsey. Sophie Winter with her verdict.
JonBenet’s body was discovered by her father in the basement of her family’s home in the small town of Boulder, Colorado, on Christmas in 1996; eight hours after she was reported missing.
There was a three-page, handwritten ransom note left behind. Yet, partly thanks to conflicting evidence and a tampered crime scene, no one has yet been convicted over JonBenet’s death.
Since then, the townsfolk of Boulder have grieved the loss of ‘Little Miss Colorado’. And thanks to the intense media fascination, consequently, so has the rest of the world.
With an apparent confession from Gary Oliva, a convicted paedophile from Colorado, circulating in mainstream news mid-last month, the conspiracy theories surrounding the murder are more relevant than ever. So too is the hybrid-documentary’s focus on truth, or more so, notions of the truth propagated by the media.
Australian director Kitty Green takes an unorthodox approach to JonBenet’s death, with the majority of her 2017 film consisting of interviews with local actors from the small town of Boulder.
They each perform auditions for the roles of the key figures in the 22 year investigation – including JonBenet’s mother, father, brother, Boulder’s police chief, and even the local Santa Claus. Yet we seem to see everything but an audition take place.
“Do you know who killed JonBenet Ramsey?”
It feels like speaking to the dead when the first uncanny JonBenet lookalike appears on the screen and asks the painful question which cannot be answered. The shots of an eerie snow-capped Colorado, reminiscent of scenes from The Shining, are even more unsettling.
And Green does not attempt to answer. The subjective truth lies in the hands of the amateur actors (including a grocery store owner and a sex educator), who share their own theories and snippets of their personal experiences in a desperate attempt to seem connected to it all. It is both tedious and fascinating at once.
Dozens of women branding red t-shirts open a discussion with the camera about the potential motives of JonBenet’s mother, Patsy Ramsey – one of the public’s favourite suspects. Was she outraged at JonBenet’s bed-wetting habit? Jealous of her daughter’s pageant success? Buckling under the pressure of her approaching 40th birthday?
To the actors, these are all very real explanations. And as one woman questions the strength of a nine-year-old boy – JonBenet’s brother, Burke – to have delivered the mortal head blow, Green cuts to footage of boys auditioning for the role of Burke shattering watermelons with flashlights.
Perhaps the creepiest performance of them all, several men in orange jumpsuits audition for the role of John Mark Karr, a paedophile who falsely confessed to the homicide in 2006. One of them is awfully convincing in his statement: “She was beautiful…she was just a little doll.”
It becomes evident the abundance of contradicting theories, evidence and numerous false confessions endured by the case, and the actors are the living proof that the hysteria surrounding the murder is well and truly alive today. Between re-enactments of the aftermath of the crime, they cannot help but gossip about the glamorised tragedy. Gary Oliva’s confession just adds another spanner in the works of the “media circus”.
It is strange for a crime film to have such a slow build, yet the lack of a linear narrative sheds light on the public’s obsession with creating their own and pursuing an elusive truth. And that’s exactly what Green is trying to convey. There may never be answers, but everyone wants someone to blame.
A fascinating experiment worth a watch.