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.
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.
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.
VERDICT – 4 STARS