REVIEW: “American Murder: The Family Next Door” (2020)


I try not to get too caught up in the highly publicized true crime tragedies that capture our national spotlight and often play out on our television screens. One that did grab me was the 2018 disappearance and murder of pregnant mother Shanann  Watts and her two young daughters four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste. The very idea of such a crime was horrifying and it only got worse once the killer’s identity was fully revealed.

The new Netflix documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door” comes from director Jenny Popplewell and chronicles the Watt family murders in a uniquely chilling way. The film tells the entire story through social media videos, text messages, phone call audio, original television newscasts, police body cameras and security camera footage. No narrator, no interviews, no dramatizations. It’s a methodical presentation of the facts that may come across as a little too polished, but it builds its case like an expert prosecutor.


Photo Courtesy of Netflix

For those unfamiliar with the heinous crime, in the early morning hours of August 13, 2018 in Frederick, Colorado Shanann arrived home after a weekend business trip. Her husband Chris Watts had stayed home with their daughters. Later that day both Shanann and the couple’s two girls were reported missing. An investigation by the local police and the FBI ensued. Two days later Chris was arrested after failing a polygraph test. He would later admit to murdering Shanann who was 15 weeks pregnant with their third child. After some initial hesitation, he eventually admitted to murdering their two daughters but not before the story made national news and the victim’s reputation had been brought into question.

Popplewell along with her editor Simon Barker are able to put together the weeks leading up to the murder in large part thanks to Shanann’s family who provided access to her social media and texts. It paints a picture of a woman with a rocky past who found happiness and stability in her new husband. Facebook videos show a warm and loving family, but text messages begin hinting at a different reality.

We see Shanann struggling with insecurity while becoming increasingly aware that something is not right with Chris. We see her worries most vividly in texts she makes to a close friend and confidant. She notes Chris’ distance and she begins to suspect infidelity. Through these flashback sequences Popplewell gives us pieces to the puzzle that can’t possibly explain the horrendous acts that would follow but adds some eye-opening context.


Photo Courtesy of Netflix

And then you have the investigation itself revealed through some riveting points of view. The body-cam footage from the police officer doing a wellness check chills you to the bone. We see the man who just a few hours earlier choked his pregnant wife to death and smothered his two daughters deceptively playing the part of the worried husband and father. Later, through interrogation room security footage, we see the polygraph test administered and ultimately the confession of the monster. Smartly, Popplewell doesn’t make this into a mystery. We know who the killer is from the start. That makes everything see more unsettling.

The film brings another uncomfortable truth to light. It exposes how much of our lives are self-published online. Personal confessionals, relationship issues, pictures of young children. In one sense it helps illuminate the truth behind this particular crime. In another sense it highlights the dependence millions of people have on web-based social networking. Holding up Shanann’s cellphone, Chris tells an officer “This is her lifeline.” Yet we also see how deceptive the online lives people create can be. As for evil, it can hide behind a number of unassuming and unnoticeable masks. And sometimes you can pass it everyday in the comforts of your own neighborhood. “American Murder: The Family Next Door” is now streaming on Netflix.



21 thoughts on “REVIEW: “American Murder: The Family Next Door” (2020)

    • It puts pieces together that allows us to come to some conclusion. Still it’s such an unimaginable crime. It’s hard to fully get into a mind like that.

  1. I’m not sure if I want to see this as I do find real crime stories interesting but given the tone of the world we’re in. I’d rather not watch something like this for now.

  2. Thanks for the review. It helps me to know the format they use and how they approach the facts. I will watch it out of a morbid interest. To see the mask of deception slip away when he confesses. This is the face of evil, one that can kill their own children! I don’t care how “nuts” someone is, they know that much is wrong!

    • Yes! And it’s so chilling to watch him so callously put on his act. The format is great because it really lays out first-hand information rather than speculation.

      • I watched this last night, and so many aspects of it curdled my stomach. The wife was obsessed with publicly (and with friends) sharing every aspect of her being. No boundaries whatsoever!!!! She treated her husband and kids like trick ponies!!!! I could absolutely see someone wanting to get away from that lifestyle!

        That said, the husband was a fricking psychopath!!!!!!! The way he was courting that other woman. Did you notice he had that same identical fake smile with her that he did with his family? And how he made those calls on the day he murdered his family!!!! I’m not one for capital punishment in 99% of cases, but I’d make an exception in his.

      • It definitely says a lot about social media/online sharing. But you’re so right about him. How chilling is it to watch him carry out this act. Staging it with the phone calls. Talking with reporters. Galling!

  3. Hi Keith, I watched this yesterday after reading your review here. I was floored by the responses from people on social media that were shared in the documentary. Such a sad sad story. It shook me up for a long time. Especially reading the comments at the end about how prevalent violence against women is. You did a great job reviewing a difficult storyline.

    • Thanks so much Sandra. Glad you have it a look. So much about this story shook me. As a husband and dad I couldn’t fathom something like it. Also the idea that a person can look so normal. As frustrated and suspicious as Shanann was, even she couldn’t imagine that man could do something like what he did. And many tried to put the blame on her for ‘driving’ him to do it. Astonishing!

      • Yes! That’s what struck me too! People putting her down as though her actions and/or personality somehow justified the outcome. Unreal! I just saw a news story about how he is currently corresponding with women while serving his sentence. Such a terribly tragic story.

    • This was such a tragic story that turned into an infuriating story. This documentary tells the story from a facts-based point-of-view. It’s really well done.

  4. I have only just seen this show and, whilst utterly compelling viewing, as you have said it’s not uplifting in any way. You try to fathom some sort of lesson learned but there isn’t one, other than you can’t trust anyone (even those who are supposed to love you) and that, if you are the victim of a crime and in particular a female victim, people speculate after the event and blame you for it. Gripping yet also heartbreakingly sad, both for the family concerned and for society as a whole.

      • Maybe that “normal” appearance is why people tried to play the blame game afterwards? If this particular devoted family man is capable of such a thing, then OUR husband/father/son/neighbour could, too … so we make ourselves feel better by saying he must have been driven to it (by an evil woman).

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