There’s no narrator in the new Netflix true-crime documentary film American Murder: The Family Next Door, which tells of Chris Watts’ unthinkable 2018 murder of his pregnant wife, Shanann, and their two young daughters. There are no scripted lines or cameras cutting to detectives being asked to talk about the case by an offscreen producer. The documentary was assembled using all archival footage from real sources.
Some viewers complain about this technique, saying the footage was already widely shown, or that it made for a less cohesive story. I disagree. The real footage made this already horrific tale all the sadder, and I’ll never forget about Shanann and her children.
Viewers watch security camera footage of Shanann, home late from a trip, hauling her suitcase into her Colorado home. Viewers know what Shanann does not — that she will never leave that beautiful suburban home alive. I have a Ring security camera, and I know well the fuzzy realism of those video snippets. You forget you’re being filmed, even though you installed the camera, and there’s zero pretense in how you behave.
Viewers even get a glimpse of the friend who dropped her off slowly backing her car into view and only driving away when it’s clear Shanann is able to get in her house. So normal, so recognizable to any modern woman who’s dropped a female friend off at home. She’s safe now. She has her key, or her door code. OK, I can drive off. Except Shanann was far from safe.
The rest of the film, streaming now, continues with that real-video format. These days, so many regular moments of our days are recorded, saved and archived. Most of them fall into oblivion unless they pop up in a Facebook Memories post or a saved smartphone video — unless something horrible like this happens.
The film uses these real-life captures amazingly well. The friend who dropped her off is heard calling emergency services to report that Shanann can’t be reached. The screen fills up with the tappity-tap of text messages between Shanann and Chris, or Shanann and friends, footage from Shanann’s Facebook posts, eventual police interviews — all unfolding a story that’s all the more unnerving because we know what happens.
This is a plot-delivery system for the 21st century. It’s similar to the genre of horror films known as found-footage films, where the story is told via cameras held or worn by the victims themselves. Sometimes that can feel cheesy (would people really keep filming when they’re running for their lives from zombies?) but when done well, like in the original 2009 Paranormal Activity movie, it can be terrifying. American Murder: The Family Next Door does it very, very well.
Shanann’s story has been compared with the 2002 murder of pregnant Laci Peterson by her husband Scott. It’e easy to see why. Both women were white, pretty and pregnant. Scott Peterson and Chris Watts even look similar, and both husbands were uncertain about their upcoming baby and having affairs with women they didn’t want to give up.
But while news reports about Laci Peterson’s personality seemed almost unanimously rosy, Shanann is presented as a real human, not a saint. Say it’s blaming the victim, say it’s part of living in a world in which people make a game of snarking on others’ online personalities, say it’s simply objective reporting — whatever you call it, it makes Shanann spring off the screen as someone you might have known. Her hopes for her failing marriage, her fight with her mother-in-law over CeCe’s nut allergy — you can relate to her issues.
Chris’ parents and sister, we learn, weren’t fond of Shanann and didn’t attend the couple’s wedding, though when we see the inevitable footage of the lovely bride and handsome groom taking their vows and dancing, Shanann’s wedding-day face doesn’t reveal anything. Like so many people whose social-media personas reveal only the highlight reels they want to present to the world, she shared her worries with only a friend or two.
Chris Watts now sits in a Wisconsin prison, where he’s reportedly found religion. Since his case played out so recently and so publicly, there’s much more detail out there for those who choose to seek it out — discussion groups, podcasts, even Watts’ letters from prison. The positive family image Shanann strove to present has been washed over with a tsunami of tragic fact. It’s a thought-provoking reminder for those of us who envy others’ lives as shared on Facebook or Instagram. There’s often something more complicated going on behind the public portrayal of the family next door.