“IT IS SUNDAY afternoon, preferably before the war,” wrote George Orwell in his essay Decline of the English Murder. “The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. … In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?” The answer to Orwell’s question––“naturally”, as he puts it––is murder. General squalor and vice have their place, of course, but it’s murder––grim and grisly and gruesome accounts of how low human nature can sink––that really captures the collective imagination.
This not-so-guilty fascination with the macabre, and the circus of speculation and gossip and crackpottery that surrounds a murder is the central theme of Kitty Green’s genre-bending Casting JonBenet, a true crime documentary less about the murder of the titular six-year-old girl in Boulder, Colorado in 1996, than the cast of actors (and would-be actors) eager for a chance to recreate the events of the night of her death. The film begins with an introduction to Hannah, who is trying out for the role of JonBenet Ramsey, and what follows is a sort of extended casting call for an unnamed and never-realised fictional movie about her murder. Green, who remains curiously detached from the events of her film at all times, auditions the local residents of Boulder for the roles of JonBenet’s mother, Patsy, and father, Jon; her brother, Burke, and the local police chief. But Green isn’t interested in whether these untrained, undertrained or inexperienced actors can act (in most cases they can’t) but in their thoughts about the case. And of course, they all have their theories. (An unsolved murder? Well, I mean, they’re the best ones).
It’s a slightly worrying (though not at all surprising) example of the confidence with which people hold their opinions once they start to play detective. (It wasn’t that long ago that a man was telling me without a trace of self-awareness how Madeleine McCann had accidentally been given an overdose of sedatives by her parents. After all, he told me, they were doctors).
The extent to which Green’s subjects were pressed to offer their thoughts, not solely on the case but on the various traumatic experiences on which they draw to try to recreate the case, isn’t clear, though there is at least one person who at first declines to explain who he found dead and later spills the beans. Even if they weren’t pushed, the members of the cast still revisit painful memories in their zeal to land the part: one discusses the murder of her brother; another talks about her mother’s diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. It isn’t really worth asking if the film’s exploitative. Of course it is, accidentally or otherwise, and the opacity of Green’s role in what the participants say and do doesn’t help matters. The editing, which involves a series of quick jumps from character to character in identical dress, is such that the film’s subjects are reduced to their quirkiest, most intimate and most idiotic soundbites. Nevertheless it’s a slightly worrying (though not at all surprising) example of the confidence with which people hold their opinions once they start to play detective. (It wasn’t that long ago that a man was telling me without a trace of self-awareness how Madeleine McCann had accidentally been given an overdose of sedatives by her parents. After all, he told me, they were doctors).
What many of the reviews of Casting JonBenet appear to have omitted is that it’s out-loud, head-back, laugh-out-loud hilarious an awful lot, despite the tragic subject matter, in part because Green designs it in that way and in part because of the terrible acting. To answer the question of whether a ten-year-old boy––JonBenet’s brother Burke––could have smashed a six-year-old’s head in with a torch, Green has the young actors try to bash a watermelon to bits (which they do with brio); there’s also a scene in which a hammy potential Jon Ramsey finds the body of his daughter that is the very definition of gallows humour. And the conclusion of the film, in which we see all the actors play out their scenes simultaneously in the Ramsey housing set, built in a large warehouse, is an effective if not exactly subtle expression of the thousands of different theories cheerfully and confidently offered up by people who know little in the wake of a tragedy.