The past few years have seen a complete revival in the genre of true crime. From HBO's The Jinx, to NPR's Serial podcast, to Netflix's Making a Murderer, to Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story: average viewers have demonstrated they are interested in the machinations of our justice system — and its almost universal failure to ever provide real justice. These documentaries and dramas have elevated the concept of true crime from sensationally tawdry tabloid fodder to a truly high-brow art form. Now, Netflix is making even further strides forward by exploring new formal territory with their incredibly avant-garde documentary Casting JonBenet.
Not even the trailer does justice to the bizarre conceit behind this film, and it takes about 30 minutes into the actual movie before what's happening really begins to make any sense. If you don't have the patience for that kind of experience, here's the cheat sheet: Casting JonBenet isn't really a documentary about JonBenet Ramsey. The film, in actuality, is a series of interviews with actors and actresses auditioning for a part in a fictional documentary about the crime itself. There are no interviews with lawyers, policemen, or legal experts as one generally expects from a true crime documentary; the voices of the hopeful performers are the only ones we hear. Intercut with the auditions are dramatic reenactments of various imagined scenes from the unsolved killing of Jonbenet Ramsey: Patsey Ramsey's call with the police, John's discovery of his daughter's body, Burke's interactions with his dearly departed sister, etc...
Through these actors' points of view, we learn about the case details itself — but since these actors are not legal or forensic experts by any means, it is impossible to tell what is a media fabrication, what is bias, what is a guess, and what is actually the truth. Each actor has a completely different interpretation of what went down: some believe Patsy was to blame for JonBenet's death, others say an undisovered assailant was surely involved, and some believe in a handful of bizarre conspiracies ranging from child pornography rings to government coverups. Each theory could spurn it's own documentary, and each is given equal weight and importance.
The focus of the documentary, as stated before, is not the crime itself but the hard truths about the human condition the fallout of the crime has coaxed the actors into talking about. In an attempt to get emotionally closer to the actions they will be re-enacting, each actor describes how they have come to relate to their chosen role: some conjure up stories about their closeness to the actual murder, others bring up their own personal experiences of the loss of a child, others relate to the narrative of familial abuse. One particularly goofy segment involves a BDSM sex-educator auditioning for the role of a policeman. He seems like a total joke of a person — until his testimony on JonBenet's autopsy actually reveals volumes about the nature of what she faced shortly before her death.
We're also provided with shots of actors preparing for their scenes: the camera lingers on the long contemplative pauses as they attempt to summon tears into their eyes or their polite pre-scene conversations with each other. By revealing the process of the performers, the documentary simultaneously sheds and gains a layer of "authenticity": these are people playing a role — just like lawyers who must argue for something they don't believe or criminals lying through their teeth in court. All the world's a stage, so they say.
There is no way to make an implicity un-bias crime documentary. Every one has it's own unconscious morality about the worth of human life, the values of justice, the nature of innocence. Kitty Green, the director of Casting JonBenet, has done away with the idea of impartiality entirely by interviewing vehemently opinionated citizens rather than authorities on the actual subject. It would be a bit pretentious, although not entirely inaccurate, to say that Casting JonBenet is a critique of the genre of true crime rather than a true crime movie itself. By exploding the formal structure of what we expect from a true crime documentary, we are instead revealed the inherently flawed premise of the genre itself. We are left with nothing but sad personal narratives of love and loss and no discernable facts — because in reality outside the courtroom and away from the cameras, there's really no such thing as the truth.
This becomes increasingly clear in the fallout the so-called true crime revival, in which each detail presented in the various critically acclaimed series become re-examined anew. Suddenly we're informed of the hidden agenda behind these supposedly truth-telling documentaries; we eventually come to see a political or moral regiment beneath what we at first bought as pure exposé. It seems strange that Netflix will be following this post-modern project with the much more straightforward series The Keepers, about the murder (and possible coverup) of a Baltimore nun. How are we to believe in the "truth" of the documentary after this medium has been so thoroughly exploded?
The film's shockingly gorgeous ending, in which rooms full of Patsys and Johns and Jonbenets and Burkes sob and fight and mourn together, is a haunting — almost Lynchian — reminder of the artifice inherent in the artform of the documentary itself. With the edges of the set exposed and the film equipment fully in view, a lone Jonbenet dances in a spotlight until the credits roll.