The new Netflix crime documentary ‘American Murder – The Family Next Door’ is about the disappearance of a pregnant Shannan Watts and her two daughters in Frederick, Colorado. Directed by Jenny Popplewell, what makes this film stand out is the fact that all of the footage used is real – from police cameras, CCTV cameras, courtroom clips, news clips to videos shot by the Watts family, they are used throughout the narrative to shed light on Shannan’s personality.
There is no narration, no interviews, the makers use audio recordings of the witnesses to the cops, which are played over either photos or past videos of Shannan. Same goes for a lot of clinching text messages that are used in the documentary. We even get to see real interrogation footage of her husband Chris, including his polygraph test.
Shannan Watts was in a habit of putting up videos of her kids and husband Chris on social media, so the makers of this documentary were spoiled for choice when it came to archival footage. This turns out to be both a boon and a bane for the production. While Jenny Popplewell’s team didn’t have to struggle with video material at all, they give in to the temptation of making this film longer than it needed to be, making it boring in bits. Some of the archival footage used by the team, especially that of the two little girls, is clearly meant to exploit the emotions of the viewer. Like a brief clip where you can see one of the girls call Chris a ‘hero’. Or the one where the little one happily flops from her father’s arms over sea-waves during a beach outing.
To those who see a lot of true crime films, Shannan Watts’ murder won’t come across as chilling at all. Maybe it’s the setting of the crime that makes it terrifying for some. Shannan and Chris live in an immaculate residential neighborhood, the kinds where nothing really happens, except for maybe friendly outdoor barbecues.
Given that I am from India, I have never even heard about the case, but within the first five minutes it’s crystal clear that her husband had something to do with it. A woman disappears with her two kids and the CCTV camera right outside their house shows nothing? Except for the husband moving boxes early morning into his vehicle before leaving for work. That’s your suspect right there. Unless she vaporized into thin air or could teleport. This was a pretty simple case and it took only three days for the cops to get a murder confession out of Chris, even if he doesn’t give them the whole truth at first.
At the end, the documentary does manage to stir up anger in the viewer, because it’s only towards the climax that some of the really harrowing details of the murders are revealed. However, the film leaves a lot of questions unanswered. While there is a lot of material to show how Shannan was madly in love with her husband and kids; there is not enough shown about the motivations of Chris. Looks like he just got physically fit, found himself a ‘hot’ girlfriend and decided to annihilate his entire family one night. But the murders neither come across as a crime of passion nor as an act that was pre-meditated and planned well in advance.
What “American Murder” does manage to display disturbingly well is how crimes that catch the public’s fascination can turn life into a living nightmare for the victim’s family. Chris in his first confession claims it was Shannan who smothered the kids in front of him and that he killed her in reaction to it. This leads to a lot of public shaming and social media slander of Shannan.
It’s ludicrous how anybody can believe that an obsessive gym freak like Chris could do nothing to stop his wife (who by the way was 15 weeks pregnant and even suffered from an auto-immune disease) from strangling their two little girls. It only goes on to show how women suffer from unhinged discrimination even during death. “She clearly drove him crazy”/”She was a narcissistic bitch” were the kind of things people said about Shannan after her demise. It’s pretty much like the sickening rape analogy when it comes to women, even when they are murdered – they probably “asked for it”.
This Netflix documentary is a 6/10 for me.