This is best read by those who have already seen the documentary, but it’s your one wild and precious life, so gey gezunt. It’s just, so much of the power of this movie comes from not knowing what you’re about to see at all — going in with your own expectations, anticipating what a true crime investigation of a six-year-old’s murder is going to give you, and then gradually having that stripped away.
There are no official experts interviewed for Casting JonBenet. No crime scene footage. No photos of JonBenet herself, hair piled marshmallow-high. Instead, over the course of 80 minutes, we watch actors auditioning for roles in a JonBenet Ramsey-based project.
When we die and are taken to whatever our reward is going to be, we will be told three things: Every good act we’ve ever done, that we have always been loved, and that Burke Ramsey murdered JonBenet. Until then, though, this case remains frustratingly unsolved. Any answer is as good as any other. All theories are in play. “Do you know who killed JonBenet Ramsey?” one of the little girls auditioning for that role asks, an impish grin on her face, because she knows she’s asking an unanswerable question, and that there’s power in macabre cuteness.
“I’m normally typecast as the loving mother, and then also as…a bitch,” one of the actresses auditioning for the role of Patsy Ramsey tells the camera. She looks like Maya Rudolph playing a Very Specific kind of white woman, maybe Miranda from Sex and the City. Another says, “Usually mom, or the friend, is what I’ve played.” One woman, who brought her own Mrs Colorado pageant photos, says, “Both of us–” meaning she and Patsy Ramsey “–are not the really thin girls. We’re a little bit heavier.”
Some of the women have Patsy’s dark hair, but just as many don’t. Many wear the traditional Patsy Ramsey garb of a short-sleeved red sweater, but one woman auditions in a navy blazer with a blue collared shirt, unbuttoned to show a pearl necklace. “I noticed that you had some of the other women who are auditioning for Patsy wearing the red top, but for me, it’s the pearls that make who Patsy was.” She might be the closest, physically, to what Patsy Ramsey looked like. But she could also easily play Ina Garten in a TV movie.
Casting JonBenet isn’t interested in answering any questions, and certainly not questions about the death of JonBenet. Instead, it’s interested in how others answer that question, and exploring, very gently, how they came to that conclusion. The documentary doesn’t concern itself with presenting the truth — because it knows it can’t. Instead, it wants to explore the nature of truth, and how our individual ideas of the truth lead us to conclusions that may not necessarily be correct. There’s this idea we have created, where we think that if we have enough pieces of the truth, they will fit together like a puzzle into a Grand Explanation. But they don’t, because they can’t, because there is no Grand Explanation to anything, no puzzle to put together.
“And what it cited, that I think incited so much rage in me was that the stressors that Patsy was under — one of them being the holidays, and another being her impending 40th birthday. And I’ll be 39 next month.”
There’s an interesting gendered approach to how the actors who are auditioning for John Ramsey describe him, and how the actresses for Patsy describe her. The women are protective of Patsy, while not totally exonerating her. There’s an “if” haunting all of their points: If Patsy killed her daughter, it was an accident, either from exhaustion or deep insecurity. “She’d gotten too old,” one woman explains. Another recounts an article she had recently read about the case, explicitly naming Patsy as the murderer: “And what it cited, that I think incited so much rage in me was that the stressors that Patsy was under — one of them being the holidays, and another being her impending 40th birthday. And I’ll be 39 next month.” The men see John Ramsey as incredibly competent, and both praise and envy his business successes. “I don’t believe he was involved in any way,” a man who looks like Kris Kristofferson says, but doesn’t explain why. Another man says, “The more manic side of this situation seemed to come from Patsy’s side,” and that may have to do.
Actors are always themselves, but seek to inhabit other people. They need to find their way into another life, usually via empathy. In a way, actors see themselves as the frame into which all the puzzle pieces of a person’s life fit. Casting JonBenet is interested in this framing — and sees not just actors, but humans, as mechanisms for processing information via our own experiences and empathy. We watch this happen on screen, when a woman starts out with, “Why? She had no motive,” explaining Patsy to the filmmakers and to herself. But then her explanation shifts: “I’m frustrated as a parent. I’m frustrated with my kids. There’s no motive to kill them. There’s no motive to do that.” Patsy couldn’t have done it because she couldn’t have done it. She is like Patsy, and Patsy is like her, and we’ve all been frustrated, so frustration can’t be the answer.
But there’s still a dead six-year-old.
Another woman explains Patsy’s involvement this way: “More than anything I think it was the ransom note that was written, that handwriting experts said she most likely wrote. I found that pretty interesting because I’ve had my handwriting analyzed. And it was fascinating, because I wasn’t there. It was an ex-boyfriend who showed this handwriting expert a birthday card that I gave him. But this expert could actually tell that I had had a trauma to my right ankle. And sure enough I had reconstructive surgery on my right ankle.”
We want to understand why terrible things happen — be satisfied with the outcome. But this is very different. We confuse satisfaction with understanding, assuming that what feels right about any situation must be true. One woman feels she has gained insight into Patsy by getting as close as she could to Patsy’s earrings. There’s a look of satisfaction on her face.
Later in the documentary, the actors are shown rehearsing the press conference. “You know, they were never really too close,” an actor who looks like a version of Matt LeBlanc who has received bad news explains to his acting partner and to the camera. “Like, they weren’t like this [puts his arm around “Patsy”] or, I mean, but I might just angle in.” There’s a long pause while the Ana Gasteyer-looking woman really thinks about the Patsyness of her own psyche, and then the pause is longer still, until finally, “I don’t think I would angle in.”
So, again, the brilliance of the documentary is that it’s not just the actors who are seeking to be cast in a JonBenet-themed project. We do it too. We do it each time we work through a series of someone else’s unfortunate events. “I would have done x, y, or z.” Or, “Why would anyone do such a thing?” Or, “Both of us are not the really thin girls.” The Gospel of Thomas says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” And bring forth we do, often, seeking satisfaction more than understanding; mistaking truth for a puzzle that we think we’ve solved.