Colorado man Christopher Watts admitted in November 2018 that he killed his pregnant wife Shanann and their two girls before burying their bodies in an industrial oil field near their suburban house.
It’s the kind of terrible tale about an apparently perfect American family that fuels true crime crazes and prime-time news specials.
TV shows like “Extra” and “Dr. Phil” and even a Lifetime movie with dramatic elements all followed. The family of the victims approved the new Netflix documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” which takes a more somber and introspective approach.
The film’s effectiveness stems from British director Jenny Popplewell’s decision to construct a story completely out of archival material, rather than using the datelines, dramatic narrator, and emotive interviews typical of television crime documentaries.
The film’s plot is based mostly on Shanann’s continuous social media posts, video confessionals, and text messages with her husband. Christopher’s confession, captured on police body cameras and polygraph surveillance film, brings all of these factors together.
As a result, the picture has an unsettlingly personal feel while simultaneously being sufficiently broad to convey the emotional distance between the couple’s joyful online persona and their actual, crumbling marriage.
I’ve often wondered if the voyeuristic appeal of such horrible tragedy merits the watching of this type of story. Popplewell’s film, however, portrays the Watts case as more than just a criminal investigation. It’s a well crafted, undeniably skilled exploration of domestic abuse with themes of marriage and the trickery of social media.
Available on Netflix