True crime documentaries seem to be somewhat of an obsession for Netflix viewers. At least once a month a new documentary drops that is talked about by viewers everywhere, whether it be a movie or a TV show. This month’s example, American Murder: The Family Next Door, is the widely publicized story of the seemingly perfect Watts family, who becomes the subject of one of the most horrific domestic incidents shared in the national news in recent years. The family consists of the mother and father, Chris and Shanann Watts, and two little girls, Bella (4) and Celeste (3), who live a nice life after moving to Frederick, Colorado after marriage. Shanann lives her life through Facebook and online videos, so almost everything in her life at the time has been documented for her friends and followers. Her life is happy and idyllic, but once she and the two kids disappear without a trace, everything comes into question, with her friends and family wondering what went wrong. Obviously, given the title of the movie, the case is far worse than the surface information initially reveals, and the family’s perfect life was far more conflicted and dysfunctional than meets the eye.
American Murder is a compelling and heartbreaking true story that leaves a knot in the audience’s stomach for the entire duration, especially during the last third. The film is so memorable that the generic and clunky title, American Murder: The Family Next Door, undersells the quality. This title makes the movie sound like a Lifetime thriller that doesn’t deserve to see the light of day, when in reality it is far more valuable. It isn’t a perfect documentary, but it does a great job at delivering a devastating true crime story that examines toxic family dynamics and related gender roles, the ways in which social media can distort reality, and how extreme cases like this are less rare than we might think.
Even though I went into American Murder knowing the outcome due to the media covering it so extensively when it happened two years ago, I will not disclose it here for those who want to figure out the truth themselves. The main reason this documentary stands out from others that deal with distressing subject matter is the format — the entire story is told from online archival footage from Shanann Watts’ social media accounts, her text messages, and the police footage of the investigation. There are no criminology experts that appear to explain the details and what they mean to the audience; viewers only see the truth as it objectively happened and determine for themselves the lessons to be learned from this case. This approach serves the story well and immerses the viewer in the lives of the Watts family. Sometimes the intimate details get a little too close for comfort, such as when the film shows text messages spelling out the married couple’s daily sex life, but this approach also makes the revelations later in the movie come with a far more impactful gut punch.
The other facet of American Murder that makes it a memorable viewing is the universal applicability of the story. This could happen to anyone, anywhere — no matter how good life may seem. In fact, a lot of the movie is a comment on this concept: the “ideal” white suburban life that is full of drama and subtle dysfunction with a glossy surface. The themes in this documentary reminded me of Big Little Lies, which also portrays a white suburban school community that has darkness hidden from view. American Murder will surely hit home with the demographic which the film portrays, for it suggests that the typical lifestyle an American nuclear family leads has the possibility of changing on a dime despite the way things look on Facebook.
My one major gripe with the way in which director Jenny Popplewell, who does an otherwise fantastic job, portrays this issue is her attempt at red herrings early in the movie. For some time, the documentary is trying to lead the audience into thinking Shanann ran away despite the movie being titled American Murder. In doing so, they show text messages that make Shanann look like the cause of all the dysfunction that leads to her eventual disappearance. Not only does it portray a relative falsehood and distract from what the focus should be, but it implies the victim is to blame for what happened to her life. The film eventually turns itself around from these couple of scenes, but the focus on Shanann’s flaws distracts from the clear issue: the monster who committed premeditated murder. I understand that she is a flawed person and that it has a role to play, but in the end there is no journalistic purpose to showing how she was controlling and created issues out of nowhere in Chris’ eyes. It would have been better to focus on the liveliness of Shanann and the way in which the murderer was at fault instead. Late in the film, they turn the focus in the right direction and it pays off, but near the middle I feel as if the movie could have gone without certain misleading text messages and footage.
Despite this, the people who come out of American Murder thinking Shanann is at fault do not understand the message Popplewell is trying to get across with this story. One of the main themes involves the identity of the killer which I will not reveal here, but it is a powerful and disturbing revelation about an issue that has plagued society for centuries. American Murder is another great Netflix crime documentary for anyone who is looking for a demoralizing and horrific true story that hits close to home. This sad case was discussed all over social media in the weeks and months after it occurred, and the documentary will start this discussion all over again. Some compelling questions will be asked: Why did this happen? Can the perpetrator’s decisions be justified or are they an irredeemable monster? Do the implications of this murder have to do with gender, race and class or are they independent of demographic? The answers to all of these questions are heavily implied if one looks hard enough. American Murder does a fantastic job of creating a suspenseful narrative out of the real archive footage from the case, and despite its flaws, it will keep true crime fanatics discussing the ins-and-outs for weeks.
I give American Murder: The Family Next Door a B+.