• Nate Adams

Review: 'American Murder' pieces together horrific tragedy through archival footage



Courtesy of Netflix

Like the rest of the country, my heart sank watching the case of Shanann Watts and her two daughters unfold over national television. I remember seeing the coverage on husband/father Chris Watts who was pleading with news cameras for the safe return of his wife and two young daughters, Celeste and Bella, who had been reported missing the day prior. Plus the countless Facebook posts of local police officers searching in ditches and trenches for bodies were hard to ignore.


Little did any of us know, Chris was the one who senselessly ended their lives. 


In Jenny Popplewell’s documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” we don’t see interviews with those affected by the tragedy, nor any shocking revelations about the crime. Popplewell takes a different angle to the material, piecing archival footage together to help sustain the narrative. Utilizing everything from police body cams to grainy interrogation footage, “American Murder” attempts to tell the story from a wide range of perspectives and the results are quite captivating. 


Popplewell doesn’t paint her film as a mystery that yearns to be solved. Instead it feels like a slow descent to the realization of what happened. The filmmaker is not sugarcoating the proceedings nor hiding certain, triggering, elements to coax the audience into submission. This is a genuine recollection of what happened, and doesn’t go beyond the facts and it’s gripping from start to finish. “American Murder” isn’t so much obsessed with the outcome, as tragic it is, but wants to offer why Chris made the decision he did. Signaling how social media can influence our daily lives and lock us inside a metaphorical prison cell, while allowing Shanann to have a voice. 


Really, what the documentary pokes at lies in its title: “The Family Next Door,” because the small community in which these events took place were rattled to their core. The common subtext being: “How could this happen in our own backyard?” Well, it can to anyone and despite what Facebook tells you, we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors, because judging by social media, you’d assume Chris and Shanann had the perfect marriage with two beautiful kids. 


Some may want answers into Chris’s subconscious and what led him to committing such a heinous crime, but “American Murder” doesn’t seek to unravel that, nor does it attempt to interview the subject. It allows the victims to speak up, and though it’s a tough watch, with the disturbing and gruesome details of the murders painful to endure, we owe it to Shannan, Celeste and Bella to honor their legacies by hearing their stories and looking out for our fellow neighbor. 


Grade: A- 


AMERICAN MURDER: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR debuts globally on Netflix Wendsday September 30th.