Netflix’s American Murder: The Family Next Door takes a different approach to the true-crime documentary. In telling the horrifying story of the 2018 Watts family murders in Colorado, director Jenny Popplewell foregoes the usual talking heads and traditional verite footage, constructing a narrative entirely out of social media content, text messages and footage from police, friends and associates. The result is troubling — on multiple levels.
The Gist: On the morning of Aug. 13, 2018, Shan’ann Watts and her toddler daughters Celeste and Bella were nowhere to be found. A friend’s texts and voicemails went unanswered. Nobody came to the door of her home. The friend called the police and Shan’ann’s husband Christopher. We see police bodycam footage of Christopher looking through the house. The girls’ favorite blankets were gone. Wherever Shan’ann was, her phone, purse and medication weren’t with her. The cop and Christopher go next door, where the neighbor shares security-cam footage of Christopher backing his truck into the driveway around 5 a.m. By the way, Christopher says, Shan’ann is 15 weeks pregnant. He leaves. The neighbor tells the cop that Christopher doesn’t seem to be acting like himself at all.
Shan’ann shared much of her life on Facebook — we see images and video of the girls playing with Christopher and selfie videos that are a lot like diary entries. Her posts are upbeat and happy, as such things tend to be; they reveal how she worked hard to buy a house at 25, how she was once very unhappily married and subsequently divorced, how she was diagnosed with lupus, how meeting Christopher changed her life significantly for the better. Her texts with close friends are more intimate, complex and truthful. She and Christopher were having marital difficulties. He eventually reveals those difficulties too, after she’s gone, while he’s in a police interrogation room with a camera in the corner.
This type of electronic forensic content allows Popplewell to piece together what happened to Shan’ann, Celeste, Bella and the unborn baby boy, whom she had named Nico. Christopher takes a polygraph, her family members give tearful statements to the media, social media commenters judge her harshly as the whole story unfolds publicly, shifting from a missing-persons case to something far more disturbing.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The emphasis on social media and electronic communication to tell a modern-day tragedy brings to mind 2019’s complex and similarly troubling HBO two-parter, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter.
Performance Worth Watching: Popplewell and editor Simon Barker do amazing work, assembling an insightful and dramatically riveting narrative from many visually disparate parts.
Memorable Dialogue: An investigator gets blunt with Christopher: “You did not pass the polygraph test. Now we have to talk about what actually happened, and I feel like you’re probably ready to do that.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Many modern true-crime documentaries embrace the frustrating and puzzling ambiguities of life and society, whether they’re about unsolved crimes or cases existing in a moral haze. What happened to Shan’ann and her children is public knowledge, and I won’t share it here, although it’s not difficult to deduce. It’s shocking and deeply, deeply upsetting. The dramatic build to the big reveal isn’t the strength of American Murder, it’s the way Popplewell constructs a path to the truth. The result is haunting and difficult to watch, and all the more vital because of it.
Shan’ann’s story is unlike many others, simply because she shared so much of her life on Facebook, and she meticulously planned her posts as if she wanted to be an influencer — in one scene, she had Christopher text his arrival on an airport escalator so she could be shooting video when he reunited with Celeste and Bella. It’s a wealth of information that, even when she’s speaking openly to her followers about her anxieties and past struggles, shows only one side of herself, the side that’s optimistic. What’s disturbing is how much of her inner life could be unearthed for the documentary. She texted with a friend about her struggles maintaining a sex life with Christophe, and Popplewell includes the exchange. It feels invasive. Maybe it’s unnecessary. Maybe it’s also an important component of the whole story here. I’m not certain.
But there it is, for us to consume in all its explicit detail. This is the digital trail many of us leave behind. We have to assume Shan’ann’s family allowed it to be shared in an admirable commitment to the truth. And that truth is multi-faceted: Social media is not reality; it increasingly seems to be a scourge. However, mental illness and domestic violence are absolutely real, but difficult to rationally grasp. Popplewell aims to vividly illustrate a story emphasizing these two American epidemics and how they interrelate, but she doesn’t dare infer why. And it’s a wise choice, because we just don’t know. Maybe we should — or should at least have greater insight into the problem, lest it perpetuate. Because one more story like Shan’ann’s is one too many.
Our Call: STREAM IT. American Murder is a groundbreaking documentary. The way it presents and packages its story isn’t just outside the norm — it speaks volumes about the virtual and corporeal lives people lead in the 21st century, and clearly illustrates the need to combat some of our society’s deadliest afflictions.
Source: NY Post