“American Murder: The Family Next Door” is a mysterious ride told through the eyes of the family rocked by the heinous act of murder.
The true crime documentary, directed by Jenny Popplewell, tells the story of the Watts family, a middle-class couple from Colorado and their two kids. The family consists of Chris, an oil rig engineer, Shanann, a work-from-home sales rep, and their toddler daughters Celeste and Bella. The incident originally took place in 2018 but the documentary is new this year. The film follows the case of Chris who pleaded guilty to murdering his wife and daughters after a dispute about their marriage came to discussion.
The documentary as a whole is somewhat unremarkable. It’s not very well distinguished from other documentaries of the same genre, but one thing that does actually set it apart from others in the true crime genre is that it’s told entirely through salvaged footage. Most documentaries have testimonials interspliced with police footage, but the director chose to have it told entirely through police body cams, police interrogation tapes, and news coverage. The downside to this is that the director can only work with what is already in existence. They can’t acquire any new footage related to the case.
The subject of the film – the sort of small-town violence angle – is a little tired at this point. There is something to be said about the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads,” referring to the journalism industry’s habit of putting violent crimes forward. That is not to say that violent crime is not newsworthy but cases like the Watts murder case are often played out to death and this obsession with violent crimes on ordinary citizens with no other motive other than domestic issues is something to examine independently. Why do we as people find violent crimes such as rape and murder when they happen to ordinary small-town people so fascinating? Why do they sometimes garner international news coverage exacerbating an already turbulent time for the local peoples’ lives?
The documentary also suffers from choppy editing. Segments aren’t linked together in a convincing way. However, there is a clear story to be told here. The only problem with that is that it’s completely obvious the outcome of the murder case from the first five minutes of the film and with no testimonial commentary on the murder case, this kind of documentary storytelling falls a little flat. Unlike most documentaries, the element of mystery is almost completely removed. The saving grace on the mystery front is the film does obfuscate the nature of the murder well. It paints Chris and Shanann as locked in a “zero-sum marriage” where one would begin to become unstable while the other just has to sit and take it. This goes back and forth until the true nature of the crime is revealed.
Ultimately, it’s fine to have on as background noise but that’s about it. It’s great if you enjoy the genre as a whole and don’t have strong preferences either way in quality. “American Murder: The Family Next Door” receives a D rating.