On December 26, 1996, six-year-old beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey was found dead in her Boulder home, strangled and her skull crushed. The case has never been solved, but plenty of theories emerged, and Kitty Green’s compelling documentary experiment “Casting JonBenet” hovers in the thick of them. The movie takes the form of auditions by dozens of Colorado locals, as they alternate between offering their thoughts on the tragedy and portraying the characters at its center.
Sharing some DNA with 2016’s “Kate Plays Christine” — another inventive documentary about an infamous death that relies on contemporary performances — the movie doggedly avoids conventions of the non-fiction genre. There are no explanatory title cards or archival footage; Green invests in a bolder approach that plays off viewers’ imaginations. Documentarians increasingly seek new methods to explore their subjects, and “Casting JonBenet” epitomizes the degree of innovation afforded by this movement.
Green takes her time establishing the premise through the pileup of auditions who appear in the opening minutes. Our first introduction to the drama at hand is a young girl auditioning for JonBenet, who wonders aloud about the identity of the murderer. She’s followed by a series of women sharing their own takes on Patsy Ramsey, JonBenet’s now-deceased mother and a chief suspect during the initial investigation. They explore her psychology, share details from their own lives to relate to it, and eventually perform a scene in which Patsy makes a frantic 911 call. From there, the template is complete: “Casting JonBenet” is chiefly concerned with the struggle to represent an unknown quantity, and the various ways in which that challenge reveals details about the actors themselves.
Other characters in this expanding ensemble include a group of middle-aged men who talk through the mindset of JonBenet’s father, John, as well as a series of giddy children auditioning for the role of her brother Burke (himself a possible suspect), and the late child herself, who gallops through the movie like a ghostly question mark. As the peculiar circumstances surrounding JonBenet’s death pile up, Green oscillates between eerie ruminations on the traumatic event and the kind of pitch-black comedy that might not seem out of place in a Coen brothers production.
With so many colorful ways of discussing the situation, from the theories of a self-described sex educator to the memories of other actors who have experienced death up close, “JonBenet” has the discursive quality of a barroom debate, with competing voices who all think they understand the situation best. It’s a brilliant gamble to use these interviews as the chief narrative device. With nothing but their own version of the events on display, we’re forced to take their word for it.
But here’s the problem: Nobody’s quite sure what to believe. Was JonBenet a victim of sexual abuse, or did her brother throw a deadly tantrum? Or was it her mother, frustrated with the child’s bed-wetting tendencies? When the actors playing the parents come together in awkward scenes, reenacting a widely circulated press conference in which the Ramseys denied their guilt, the performers can’t seem to figure out their inspiration. No amount of pontification can give them enough information to crystallize their motivations, so “Casting JonBenet” doesn’t even try, instead foregrounding the task’s futility.
Green doesn’t always succeed at keeping her approach engaging, cycling through one eccentric figure after another without forging a path forward. But she constructs an atmosphere thick with intrigue, balancing interviews with elegant reenactments carried along by a somber piano score.
When the concept really clicks, “Casting JonBenet” operates as a darkly entertaining look at how gossip can fuel legend to the point where truth loses its relevance. A far cry from the investigative approach of Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” template, she barely alludes to the outcome of the police report. Green shows less interest in solving the case than in regarding the pattern of obsession that has enshrouded it for decades.
This cryptic approach has a limited scope, but it maintains a hypnotic depth for the very same reason. A wondrous montage in the closing moments finds multiple actors wandering the set, coalescing into an extraordinary collection of interpretations competing for space. Rather than imposing a specific explanation on these murky events, “Casting JonBenet” excels at lingering in the mystery.
“Casting JonBenet” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will release it this spring.