Two years after one of the most highly publicized murder cases in recent memory, the Christopher Watts familicide still enthrals true-crime fans, as Netflix’s new documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door” proves.
The Watts case is one of the most chilling family murder cases in American history. On August 13, 2018, Shannan Watts, who was 15 weeks pregnant at the time, returned home from a business trip with a friend only to be strangled and buried by her husband, Chris, along with their two young daughters.
Although Netflix true-crime documentaries have been a staple of the streaming service for years, “American Murder” is among the first to explore a case recently publicized in the media. The Colorado murder gained national attention as recently as last year, and the online true-crime community followed it closely from the first TV interview to the confession.
Shannan was an avid Facebook user, so the documentary had a wealth of home videos to draw from. The modernity of this case is reflected in the style of the film: graphics in the movie show text exchanges between Shannan and her husband, and Facebook simulations show a profile with videos of the Watts family taken before the murders.
The documentary opens with footage from the day Shannan and her daughters were reported missing by Shannan’s friend. Bodycam footage from the police officer called to the scene shows distressed friends and neighbors trying to figure out what happened to Shannan, and Chris Watts fabricating a story of kidnapping to the media and the police.
From there, the film dives more deeply into the details of Shannan and Chris’ personal lives, detailing how they grew up, their careers and how they met. This depth of personal background on the family proves to be one of the documentary’s biggest strengths and demonstrates how committed the writers were to investigating the crucial familial aspect of the murder.
Another high point for the documentary is its use of raw footage and primary evidence from the Watts’ lives, rather than the reflective, post-event interviews that are often used in these films. The key people in their lives and the way Shannan’s family and friends cared for her during her life shines through in their actions, rather than as an afterthought.
The title of the movie, “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” is not misleading in the slightest. The Watts familicide is so shocking because of how it occurred in a family that completely exemplified American suburbia, and the documentary takes time to explore the cultural influences that contributed to such a horrific event.
The Chris Watts case is controversial for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a large population remains who believe in Watts’ innocence, despite Watts’ confession to the murders. Many people online blame Shannan for the events that transpired, and, horrifically, say she deserved to die.
The documentary communicates the controversy around this case clearly, yet falters in its exploration of the implications of these beliefs of Chris Watts’ innocence. Watts appeals to American women in the same way Ted Bundy did, and this has caused many to turn away from the truth of the case. Netflix touches upon this problem but does not properly explore the dangerous implications of the falsehoods that are frequently spread about the case online.
Furthermore, the documentary fails to dive deeply into Chris Watts’ psychological issues, instead citing familial issues and disagreement with Shannan as the primary motive behind the murders. The film does not explore Watts’ psychopathy enough to properly demonstrate that these murders were premeditated and arose from a place of psychopathic bloodlust, rather than frustration with his wife.
The documentary also chooses to leave out the details of Chris and Shannan’s troubled financial situation. The pair had filed for bankruptcy in 2015, but the documentary makes no mention of this fact. Although it may not be a gaping plot hole, this omission does disregard details that would have made an interesting exploration of how American ideals and struggles made this tragedy possible.
In spite of its effective use of raw footage and recognition of the distinctively 21st century circumstances of the Chris Watts case, “American Murder: The Family Next Door” falls short because its limited scope ignores some complexities of the case. Although the intentions of the movie may have been good, it only further problematizes an already controversial case.