Netflix's Chilling 'American Murder' Is Not an Ordinary True-Crime Documentary

By mostly relying on footage from body cams and social media, 'American Murder: The Family Next Door' reframes a familiar narrative.

american murder the family next door, netflix, watts family photo
Netflix

Earlier this year, new episodes of Unsolved Mysteries premiered on Netflix and immediately leaped to the top of the platform's list of of most popular shows, attracting a curious audience of true-crime fans looking to wade through a fog of theories, clues, and ambiguities. The appeal of the show, rebooted for the streaming era after a long TV run from 1987 to 2010, is rooted in its lack of closure, particularly the way it encourages the viewer to play amateur sleuth. Months later, American Murder: The Family Next Door, a documentary about the Watts family murders that occurred in 2018, similarly jumped to the top of Netflix's Top 10, but this case is almost entirely devoid of uncertainty. Instead, American Murder offers a startling portrait of digital intimacy.

How do you reframe a narrative previously told in tabloid headlines and cable news chyrons? The case of Chris Watts, who killed his pregnant wife Shanann and their two young daughters, Bella and Celeste, is horrifying because of how mundane, straightforward, and grim so many of the details are. After losing weight, Chris Watts, a quiet oil and gas worker in suburban Colorado, had an affair, considered leaving his family, and then murdered his wife and children, disposing of their bodies in a nearby oil field. He admitted to the crime mere days after it was committed and is currently serving five life sentences without the possibility of parole. As you might imagine, the case has already inspired a Lifetime movie, episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, and a number of books.

american murder
Netflix

American Murder is not completely free of the stylistic bombast and the ethical queasiness that comes with watching a true-crime story unfold, but the film, which was directed by Jenny Popplewell, takes a formal approach that feels relatively restrained within the context of the genre. (At less than 90 minutes, it's also far leaner than recent documentary series like Netflix's Tiger King or HBO's ongoing NXIVM exposé The Vow.) Besides the body cam and interrogation room footage, which was provided by the police, and clips from the news, most of the film consists of personal social media posts and messages that were either "uploaded to the internet" or "provided by Shanann's family and friends," according to the movie's introductory text. There are no new talking-head interviews, no recreations, and no voiceovers. 

In videos uploaded to Facebook, Shanann Watts narrates her own life and her experiences, discussing her battles with Lupus, her relationship with Chris, and her love for her two daughters. The rhythms of these videos will be familiar to many people who spend time scrolling through the timelines of friends, family, and random acquaintances. All the tics are there: the chipper voice, the acknowledgement of struggle, the stretches of dead time, and the rituals of domestic life that draw you into a family's world. Hugs at the airport, baking experiments, and visits from Santa are all staged and performed for the watchful eye of a camera phone.

american murder
Netflix

The social media-sourced details of Shanann's life are contrasted with tense text messages between the couple, which display a growing communication gap in their marriage, and the footage from the police, which showcases a different type of performance. From the moment he appears on screen in the body cam scenes, Chris Watts looks nervous. He's rarely still. After showing some surveillance cam footage on his flat-screen, a neighbor tells the investigating officer that Chris doesn't seem like himself. An excruciating polygraph test, which Chris lies his way through and ultimately fails, gives way to a chilling confession delivered to Chris's father. “Good god almighty, son," he says. 

For some, the no-frills approach of American Murder will be alarming, particularly the way it can sometimes resemble a found footage film like the missing person thriller Searching or the online horror series Unfriended. Still, there's a drabness to the suburban interiors, often seen through the unforgiving lens of the body camera, and the locations, like a restaurant Chris takes his mistress to the night before the murders called The Lazy Dog, that sets the story apart from more polished Hollywood fare. There are no Gone Girl-style twists to be found. Even in attempting to center Shanann's life, her love for her children, and her story of perseverance, the film can't help but reflect the brutality and coldness of Chris's crimes. With studied precision, the movie embodies the type of emptiness it also seeks to document. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.