Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for Netflix Original “American Murder: The Family Next Door.”
Jenny Popplewell’s recently released true-crime Netflix original, “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” is a unique and ambitious undertaking that recounts the gruesome murders of Shanann Watts, daughters Bella and Cece, and unborn son Nico by husband and father Chris Watts. Unlike most true-crime documentaries that rely on interviews and other forms of verbal narration, “American Murder” is solely comprised of archival footage taken from media clips, police body cameras, social media and home videos provided by Shanann’s family and friends. This bold artistic choice on Popplewell’s part proved an unexpected success. The chilling raw footage gives viewers the sense that they are watching the investigation unfold in real-time, offering an eerily intimate viewing experience.
Popplewell cleverly uses Shanann’s social media presence to the documentary’s advantage. When she and her children were alive, Shanann rarely let a moment pass undocumented. The result is a seemingly endless stream of photos and videos of herself and her family, ranging anywhere from celebrating special occasions to just going about their daily routine. Particularly unsettling is the perfectly manicured image Shanann put forth on social media despite tensions in her household.
As Popplewell recounts, the cracks in Shanann’s facade somewhat reveal themselves. Chris’s lack of enthusiasm for her pregnancy reveal is uncomfortable at best. In another awkward video, Shanann frustratedly mocks a Santa-dressed Chris after he forgets to give her his phone for pictures with their kids.
Despite the ironic discrepancy between Shanann’s failing marriage and her optimism online, what is most disturbing about “American Murder” is Chris’s behavior during the investigation of his missing pregnant wife and children. While Shanann’s friend, Nickole Atkinson, bawls her eyes out after learning about their disappearance, Chris remains cold and emotionless — never once shedding a tear. He maintains this defiant, unfeeling exterior up until his climactic confession, where he still lies to authorities, claiming that Shanann was the true perpetrator of this crime.
“American Murder” successfully depicts Chris Watts as the monster he is. It is impressive, immersive and engaging, regardless of how obvious its “twist” may have been.
But the documentary has its flaws. The beginning can feel redundant and slow, even for somebody like myself who has never heard of the Watts case until this documentary’s release. In Popplewell’s defense, establishing the Watts as the perfect American family with Shanann’s countless Facebook posts is integral to the theme of the deceptive nature of social media. However, we did not need to see the rather uneventful struggle to enter and search the Watts’s empty house by authorities. While this search sequence only takes up ten minutes of the hour and 20-minute documentary, viewers could get the point in just two: Shanann and the kids have gone missing without any explanation. The unusual decision to slap the title card onto the middle of this dragging sequence, rather than using it to transition to something new, did not at all help its slow pace and repetitive nature. Contrary to what Popplewell seemed to believe, the repeated discovery of items meant to add to the absurdity of Shanann’s disappearance (her phone, wedding ring, and medication) did not in fact make the introduction any more intriguing or suspenseful.
The only moment of this sequence worth mentioning is a brief, one-minute audio clip of Shanann talking on Facebook Live about how, when she met Chris while overcoming her battle with lupus, she “couldn’t have asked God for a better man.” This darkly ironic sound bite aside, the documentary’s introductory sequence ultimately contains little to no significant details first-time viewers can refer back to once Chris is revealed to be the murderer.
More importantly, “American Murder” makes no effort to denounce polygraph tests as the pseudoscience they have been proven to be. Regardless of whether or not this type of test was the primary catalyst for Chris’s confession, it would have been wise for Popplewell to add some kind of disclaimer conceding that this type of technology is no longer scientifically recognized as a valid investigative tool for determining one’s guilt.
Perhaps Popplewell neglected to mention this out of fear that disclaiming the soundness of polygraph tests would undermine Chris’s guilty verdict. However, it is extremely apparent from his behavior leading up to and following the murders that he is to blame for Shanann and their children’s deaths. A denouncement against the pseudoscience that put him behind bars would not cast a shred of doubt on his culpability. His refusal to take full responsibility for his crimes — speculating that Shanann and his children would still be alive today if he hadn’t met Nicole Kessinger, the woman he had an affair with — says it all.
“American Murder” has also drawn some criticism for leaving out what many consider crucial details of the Watts case. The documentary fails to mention both the Watts family’s financial problems as well as Kessinger’s alleged lie of initially not knowing about Chris’s marriage. While noting their financial struggles may have provided more context into Chris and Shanann’s marital problems, such details about Chris’s mistress are arguably irrelevant. Although this information complicates Kessinger’s position, it does so in a way that does not add to the primary narrative of Chris being a selfish, pathetic septic tank of a person, who would rather slaughter his entire family than own up to how he feels and be truthful to Shanann.
When the world first heard about the Watts case, many victim-blamed Shanann and took Chris’s side. Popplewell overlays audio clips of women openly calling Shanann a “b**ch” and theorizing that she, being “insane,” drove Chris to murder her and their children. These are the people that “American Murder” most ardently tries to address. The narrative of the film portrays Chris as guilty in every possible way and Shanann as his faithful wife and caring mother of Cece and Bella, whose only crime was giving all her love to a man who didn’t deserve any of it.
Although proving Chris guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is arguably the documentary’s primary intention, this does not excuse Popplewell’s neglect to mention that lie detectors, as we know them, are a myth. At least, however, the film features a few statistics highlighting the prevalence of domestic violence against women in America to further disprove the popular belief that Shanann was to blame for her murder.
Themes aside, “American Murder” is yet another solid true-crime Netflix original. Despite its slow beginning and neglect to denounce polygraph tests as a pseudoscience, it still shows promise for future true-crime pieces the streaming service has in store.
Kaitlin Aquino is a 2020-2021 Opinion Co-Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org