When Lifetime’s original movie “Who Killed JonBenet?” premieres, it will be immediately followed by a two-hour special called “JonBenet’s Mother: Victim or Killer?” on Patsy Ramsey, who Lifetime describes as “the person most people believe killed JonBenet.” Both productions have a great deal in common — blurry re-enactments, melodramatic musical choices, enthusiastic use of grainy home video, leading questions — but unlike the latter, which is a vaguely “investigative” production, “Who Killed JonBenet?” is a dramatic reconstruction of the known details of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey’s murder in 1996.
In revisiting, the film provides some understanding of why this case was both so bizarre and so intriguing; particularly enlightening is seeing, in reenactment, the numerous ways in which the crime scene was disturbed on the morning of December 26, as family and friends stomped through the house and the body was moved twice. “Who Killed JonBenet?” can, and does, insinuate that JonBenet’s parents, John and Patsy (played by Julia Campbell and Michel Gill), were not wholly innocent. But the film ultimately can’t or won’t answer its own titular, provocative question. Instead, it revels, with self-satisfied schadenfreude, in the sordid details of the child’s murder.
To wit: In what is possibly one of the more exploitative creative decisions in film history, “Who Killed JonBenet?” is narrated by a disembodied child voice that is supposed to be the ghost of JonBenet (voiced by Phoebe Lawrenson). The film opens on home videos with Lawrenson’s narration, which includes her whispering the child’s bedtime prayer: “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” JonBenet then continues, “That’s the last thing I remember. Saying those words. Then I fell asleep. I don’t remember anything after that.”
It’s a masterwork of emotional manipulation. Lawrenson’s little-girl voice is almost too angelic to be believed, talking about bedtime stories and nursery games with manufactured innocence that is so heavy-handed, the audience is practically being punched. In the film’s characterization, the dead JonBenet is a sad little girl, waiting for someone to solve the mystery of her murder. It seems beside the point to add that it’s narratively confusing, but it is: Is JonBenet narrating from heaven, and if so, why does she sound so sad? Why doesn’t JonBenet not remember her own murder? Is the story trying to make a point about what happened to her, or does the film seek to advance a theory of trauma where the victim blocks out painful memories? And if so, how would any of that… make sense?
JonBenet’s narration is especially bizarre because the lead character of the film is ostensibly Steve Thomas, a retired Boulder detective who published “JonBenet: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation,” in which he posits that Patsy Ramsey killed her daughter, in 2000. In the film, Thomas, played by Eion Bailey, is styled as a lone hero dedicated to justice. “I can’t stop thinking about her,” he confides to a colleague, years after the murder. And when prosecutors decline to charge the Ramseys with a crime, even after the grand jury investigation, the detective walks portentously from the TV to his laptop, determined to tell the tale.
Weirdly, the movie’s JonBenet knows about Steve, too. “That’s Steve Thomas. He’s a detective,” she explains to the audience, when Bailey first appears on screen. “Maybe he’s the one who’s going to solve this puzzle.” At the end of the movie, when Bailey-as-Steve brings flowers to JonBenet’s Marietta, Georgia grave, he says “I’m sorry” out loud. JonBenet’s six-year-old voice chimes back, “I forgive you, Steve. And I’m sorry, too. Your life would have been better without me.”
In a moment where perceptive and grounded takes on decades-old crimes have become popular, “Who Killed JonBenet?” opts to revisit without examination. Surprisingly, given how much material there is to work with, the film offers little sense of scale for the media frenzy around JonBenet’s death or context for John and Patsy Ramsey’s life in Boulder, Colorado. Twenty years of distance does not seem to have offered the film much perspective. There is, undoubtedly, some camp appeal there, especially in Campbell’s performance as the histrionic Patsy. But the production is so limited, even on the level of pure spectacle, that it is difficult to see anything beyond its almost gleeful exploitation.
The JonBenet Ramsey murder was and is horrifically captivating, a story that is a magnet both for conspiracy theories and media sensationalism. It was a story defined by exploitation — not just by the still-unknown murderer, but by public consumption of the murder, which made much of JonBenet’s youth, looks, and pageant appearances. A look back, at this point, might offer the opportunity to examine media narratives about disappeared young girls and the easy refuge of criticizing substandard parenting. But “Who Killed JonBenet?” takes the 20th anniversary of JonBenet Ramsey’s death as an opportunity to exploit her even further — capitalizing on her voice, as well as everything else.
And as if that were not bad enough, the movie’s avatar of helpless innocence does not do justice to what we know about JonBenet’s final moments. The final lines of the film are narrated over a long shot of Ramsey’s grave: “I still don’t know who the bad guy in my story is. I guess I never will. Maybe that’s okay with me now. Maybe I can let go. Can you?” But JonBenet, in all likelihood, saw and fought her attacker — a neighbor heard a bloodcurdling scream, and the autopsy found marks on her neck where she struggled to loosen the garrote. And as Lifetime’s four-hour block of JonBenet-themed programming suggests, the only entity here who has trouble letting go of this horror story is the network itself.
Correction, Oct. 26, 3:06 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified JonBenet Ramsey’s voiceover actor as Payton Lepinski. She is instead voiced by Phoebe Lawrenson. Lepinski plays the on-screen young JonBenet in flashbacks.