Netflix’s latest documentary takes “true crime” to the next level. Relying only on footage from the police investigations, Facebook, and the subsequent trial proceedings, American Murder: The Family Next Door cuts out the fabricated suspense of other murder mysteries.
The film begins with Shanann Watts, an avid Facebook user who blogs much of her life with her husband, Chris Watts, and her two girls, Bella and Cece. After returning from a business trip late one night, Shanann is seen leaving her friend Nickole’s car and entering her house. The next morning, Nickole begins to feel anxious: Shanann has not contacted her at all since the night before. When Nickole arrives at Shanann house, no one comes to the door. She subsequently calls the police and contacts Chris, who has been at work all morning, but by the time they enter the house, Shanann, Bella, and Cece are gone.
As the documentary continues, viewers learn more about Chris himself, the couple’s marital problems, and the conversations Shanann was having with her friends before she disappeared. The couple’s dynamic is a particular source of interest for the documentarians. Shanann herself says in a Facebook video that she’s “definitely the dominant one in the relationship.” Chris, on the other hand, appears quite calm and unaffected in much of the footage presented. Shanann’s preoccupation with documenting her life allows the documentary to paint a picture of the life she presented to others through social media. She constantly stops for pictures and videos, even leading to a moment of tension on Christmas day when Chris enters their house, dressed as Santa for the children, and Shanann responds, “Where’s the phone? … I needed it for pictures.”
In conjunction with Shanann’s Facebook posts, American Murder presents the story through news coverage from 2018, when the disappearances first occurred. In other words, the documentary only makes use of real events and real coverage. Rather than employing a God-like, third-party narrator, the only voice-overs in this film are comments made by police officers and news reporters. The music is subtle, helping the story to build up in a way that does not feel fabricated. American Murder gives viewers the genuine sense that something does not add up.
The strongest aspect of American Murder is perhaps the fact that it explores the mental state of these “family next door” murderers. A lot of true crime relies on shock value to create an impact on its audience, but by exploring Chris and Shanann’s marital problems, as well as their greater familial tensions, American Murder extends beyond just one harrowing tale. Instead, it makes a comment about how regular people can end up feeling like they need to take extreme measures.
Though it relies almost entirely on firsthand footage, American Murder incorporates long shots of Colorado and Shanann’s neighborhood. The film sequences the scenes in an understandable but suspenseful order, interspersing Facebook videos with investigation footage and ultimately building up to the whodunnit truth.
It’s raw and real, a refreshing twist away from the increasingly fanciful stories within the true crime genre. By exploring the motivations behind Shanann and Chris’ actions, American Murder fleshes out their relationship and lets their flaws shine through. The film benefits from its ability to be objective and to let the viewers decide how to feel.
American Murder is somehow complex yet simple. It’s digestible yet haunting. In other words, if you have an hour and a half, it’s definitely worth the watch.
Featured image courtesy of Netflix