Netflix has developed a reputation for true-crime documentaries, for better or worse. The better are docs that dig past the shocking headlines to reveal the people at their core and the issues we as a society should be galvanized to address. The bad are docs that mercilessly recount ghoulish details, employ a gruesome bait-and-switch, or glorify the criminals at their center. Despite dealing with a deeply disturbing homicide case, American Murder: The Family Next Door is firmly in the former camp.
Directed by Jenny Popplewell, American Murder: The Family Next Door reveals the tragedy and horror that befell the Watts family. On August 13, 2018, mother-of-two Shanann Watts was reported missing by a concerned friend. Also gone were here two young daughters, four-year-old Bella and three-year-old CeCe. Left behind was Chris Watts, the flustered father who noted Shanann’s medication and cell phone (“her lifeline”) were in the house. The only thing absent besides his family was the girls’ blankies.
Two possibilities presented themselves. Either Shanann, who’d long bragged about her picture-perfect family life on social media, had fled without warning with her kids. Or her husband was to blame for their inexplicable disappearance. Popplewell doesn’t string along the answer, perhaps because audiences may recall elements of this crime that shocked the nation. She also rejects relishing in the darkest details of what went down. There will not be images of corpses or revelations from the autopsy. Instead, Popplewell keeps the focus on Shanann and what was lost.
American Murder: The Family Next Door takes a unique path to unfurling the story of the Watts family. There is no ominous voiceover delivered by a gravel-voiced narrator. The title cards are simple, announcing dates and locations, not pivotal case developments. There are no talking heads interviews with the grieving or the guilty. Instead, the entire film is effectively found footage. I hesitate to use this phrase, as it conjures up horror movies and gory gimmicks. Popplewell’s use is more sophisticated than such a phrase might suggest. She builds her documentary through existing footage of this family, making it personal and distinctly haunting.
Shanann Watts loved Facebook and frequently posted videos of her home life with her husband and her girls. By sharing these videos in the doc, Popplewell allows Shanann to speak from beyond the grave, telling us of past heartbreaks and how Chris seemed her knight in shining armor. Her posts introduce us to her daughters, gleeful and goofy girls who were happy to caper for their adoring mom. Other videos show Chris playing with them, laughing with her, and loving together.
In place of re-enactments, Popplewell employs graphic recreations of text messages shared between Shanann and her friends. These expose the breakdown of her seemingly happy marriage. Outside the public posts, she speaks candidly about tensions with her in-laws and her concern that Chris has lost interest in her. Fights between the couple play out in texts, where she is angry and he is placating. Her final texts come the day before she went missing. His come hours after her friends’ expressed concern.
The most shocking footage comes from police cameras, including officer body-cams and interrogation room recordings. Again, there is nothing graphic or gory displayed. Instead, we are made witness to how the authorities questioned their primary suspect, leading to a confession that is absolutely chilling. Popplewell adds context by cutting to aerial footage of key locations, but keeps away from the kind of shots that will haunt us. She realizes the story does that on its own.
The confession is not the end of course. There’s not only the criminal trial but also the court of public opinion to contend with. That means watching Shanann’s family being forced to defend their lost daughter against the victim-blaming mobs who would shame her even in death. American Murder: The Family Next Door doesn’t give these vicious voices much screentime, just enough to establish context. Then, it returns focus to the victims, dead and surviving.
This story is heart-wrenching and horrifying. Yet the telling of it in American Murder: The Family Next Door is deeply satisfying. Not only does this doc focus on the victims, instead of treating them like tragedy props, but also it gives true-crime fans an insight into the video evidence, texts, and interrogations that led to police cracking the case. The result is a film that is riveting, revelatory, empathetic, and unforgettable.
This found-footage-like approach proves a powerful storytelling tool, and it left me wanting to see more docs in this manner. Considering the title for this Netflix feature seems poised for sequel subtitles, I’m hopeful that more captivating cases can be given this thoughtful treatment through Popplewell’s keen eye and humane perspective.
American Murder: The Family Next Door premieres on Netflix on September 30.