TV-14. I thought for sure that this one was going to be TV-MA. It is about a famous child murder. Like, a real child murder. Then I thought about it and, outside the grizzly concept, the movie is extremely tame. It's a lot of fake crying and wailing, but nothing in the movie is all that gross. Still, it's a movie discussing the brutal murder of JonBenet Ramsey, so keep that in mind.
DIRECTOR: Kitty Green
I was hyped for this one. I've established that my wife is genuinely obsessed with the true crime documentary. The more messed up, the more she'll deny that she absolutely loves that movie. The budget and trailer looked awesome. I also hear that the JonBenet Ramsey case is way more interesting than it looked like on the news at the time. I always got the vibe that this murder was like the O.J. thing. If someone had a great documentary, they could establish how bananas the whole thing got. I thought that this was going to be a shorter version of O.J.: Made in America, only for JonBenet Ramsay. It's not.
I like when things get weird and meta. The filmmaker has a very unique vision and the storyteller becomes part of the storytelling. But this might be the line where the meta aspect of the film actually gets in the way of the storytelling. While I have to categorize this movie as a documentary, the biggest problem is that its very premise is wildly distracting. For those who don't know, the documentary is about make a docudrama (that will never air) where people of the town that JonBenet Ramsay was murdered in try out for the parts. The movie shows them reading lines and it becomes mildly funny in the darkest sense. Like montages of all audition sequences, the joke becomes how poorly some people can read scenes. Then the "actors" are interviewed about the case and what they know about it. So the entire movie is composed of hearsay and non-expert testimony while interspersing sequences of a film that doesn't actually exist. That narrative gets really old, really fast. The whole movie is so self-aware that it like a Christmas present that is just a box of wrapping paper. There is no substance, only filler. Think about how much content there is! Honest to Pete, there is so much evidence and there's so much opportunity. I suppose that it could be argued that this is more of a look at individuals and their thoughts in a small town rocked by tragedy. But the movie kind of laughs at a lot of them. Sure, some of them get some positive exposure, but this all feels like an attempt to show off how clever the filmmakers are. There is no focus in this documentary. Rather, people exist as a series of sound bytes that fill in gaps in the very loose narrative. I feel the final takeaway from the movie is that they want their audience to proclaim "What a cool concept." But that's about it.
The movie is shot beautifully, which only seems to affirm my theory that the filmmakers were arguing about who the cleverest filmmaker could be. These are a lot of the shots that are shown in the trailer. These scenes look super cool. I'm going to get angry while I write this, so I apologize that I'm hitting a lot of the same beats. The cinematography during these moments is impressive. The reenactments definitely reflect the eye of someone who wants to capture a specific emotion. The fact that these moments are out of context of the actual narrative of the Ramsay case is a bit jarring, but I think that they prove to be effective. Perhaps the most effective moment is when the film embraces how meta it actually is by having the entire cast play their scenes simultaneously. That kind of just states that the people know that they aren't really auditioning for a movie. It's an art piece about an art piece, which seems a little bit snooty. I just looked up Kitty Green and the work that she has done in the past. I now have to pretend to take everything back. She's Ukrainian and documents Ukraine quite a bit. I'll have to watch Ukraine is Not a Brothel, but I also noticed that this is really her gimmick. She did the same "Casting" premise with Oksana Baiul. But that was eight minutes. I now realize that this format of fake filming a movie absolutely beautifully might work in an eight minute short like she made previously.
The thing that bums me out about the whole thing is that I feel like Kitty Green thinks that she is saying something very important. Perhaps she thinks that this format provides a deeper emotional core than a traditional documentary. But the theme is very simple. It is a look at how misinformed and how varied we are when we come to encountering tragedy. That message is important, but it is a message that is easily told. The way that the movie is structured in terms of chronological order shows the many different "characters" that the actors are auditioning for. So we have all of the Mr. Ramsays and then all of the Mrs. Ramsays. They all talk about their scenes juxtaposed against their auditions. This goes on and on. So really the movie does kind of exist in eight minute segments all revealing the same message about how people make the news their own. It's avant-garde and I don't necessarily mind avant-garde. But it doesn't really land the message it was supposed to as well. It seems to use someone else's very public tragedy to show how superficial people are. Isn't that superficial in itself?
There is one actress auditioning for the part of Mrs. Ramsay. She seems to have led an extremely tragic life. I'm torn about her inclusion in the movie. She seems to have honestly experienced true horrors. But having her next to people who are into their own little nonsense is very odd. I don't know if it cheapens or builds on the movie. But the personalities are forgettable because there are just so many of them. Outside of the lady with all of the tragedy and a guy who is a "love expert", I don't remember much about the people in it. Then there are the inclusion of these kids. Is the movie a commentary on the nature of fame? These kids understand that they are there to portray either a murder victim or the brother of a murder victim. They have details about the case that they discuss. If the message is that we would do anything for fame, how does manipulating a situation granting them that very dark wish do anything but encourage that behavior? There were so many JonBenets there who wanted this extremely troubling part. I know that's how it works in real life, but there's a difference between "That's the way it works" and actually going out of your way to show that people will do anything for fame. The meta nature of this movie just seems manipulative.
Perhaps I'm demonizing the film. I left the movie feeling empty and unsatisfied. I had watched a very gimmicky documentary and I knew how the sausage was made. I only got this up in arms over it when I thought about what I watched and decided to review it on this website. Perhaps Green really did want to pay respects to the Ramsay case and had a unique way of doing it. It just felt like knowing how a magic trick was done before seeing the execution. Maybe I just hate when the focus is pulled off the content and it is recentered on the filmmakers. I don't feel like I know anything else about the Ramsay case and I feel like I wasted an hour and a half. That's a bummer.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.