The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true-crime TV.
I knew very little about what Wikipedia grimly calls "the Watts family murders" before watching Netflix's new documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door. I vaguely remembered seeing the name in the headlines a couple years back, and the very broad strokes of what had happened. I also knew that one property on the case, a Lifetime movie from February of this year, implied that Chris Watts perhaps wasn't responsible for what he was accused because vitamin supplements marketed by his wife Shanann's MLM employer had altered his brain chemistry... or some damn thing. But I didn't know the details, and I've stayed nonspecific up to this point because, if you don't know much about the Watts case either, you may want to experience this harrowing documentary the way I did, unsure of exactly what happened and compelled by the case as a mystery (even if you know in your heart what must have gone down). If that describes you, maybe come back to my review after you've watched.
If you do know the outcome and you did follow the case, American Murder is still worth a look. Although I'll say this up front: the film is at times extremely difficult to take, because it raises a number of interesting questions about true-crime stories and the judgments and assumptions we as viewers make as we consume these narratives. Director Jenny Popplewell shepherds the film with a careful hand, as she and editor Simon Barker work within a found-footage approach. A chyron notes at the beginning that all materials used were "captured by police, media, or uploaded to the internet," as well as "personal footage and messages" furnished by Shanann Watts' family and friends, which gives American Murder... well, I don't like comparing it to Paranormal Activity, but the sense of creeping apprehension created by something out of frame and unseen is similar, and very effective. And while the predictable drone shot of the Watts family's Colorado town and the budget-conscious cello sawing away on the soundtrack aren't great, they're used minimally, and the lack of blandly formulaic talking-head interviews makes up for the more predictable aspects of the film's construction.
The way American Murder pulls certain aspects of the case into focus is where it gets really interesting. For starters, we see a lot of police work — from the way a wellness check is conducted, to the parameters dictating when the cops can and cannot enter a residence, to the way a polygraph operator interacts with a subject. There's a reason lie-detector tests aren't admissible in court, and you can't help thinking about that as you watch the police manipulate Chris Watts' results to pressure him to confess; then you can't help but question your own "loyalties," because while Watts is obviously guilty of something, he's also outnumbered by law enforcement and doesn't have a lawyer present, and how would we feel about the cops' leveraging the polygraph if Watts were wrongfully accused, or had intellectual delays? (American Murder also gently points out the ways "peak true crime" has conditioned everyone — including cops — to respond to certain behavioral cues. A sequence in which a neighbor volunteers his security footage to back Watts' story, but then has a different take on Watts for the officer's ears only, is telling.)
American Murder's most interesting attribute might be its centering of the adult victim, Shanann Watts — and it's not the mere fact that it centers her, but how, and how different it feels from the usual encomiums about victims lighting up rooms with their smiles. The found-footage set-up lets Shanann speak for herself, and be herself, and the portrait that emerges isn't always flattering. Shanann was bossy, the "dominant" spouse in the relationship, which she freely admitted; she could be passive-aggressive; she stage-managed "cute" family moments so she could post them to social media, then groused when her "genius" husband missed his cues. This is possibly what led one commentator to call Shanann a "bitch" in audio footage; it's certainly not a justification for killing her, but it's just as certainly a rarity for a true-crime property to make that point in this way — that this was a human being doing her best; yes, her focus on Facebook might have distracted her from problems in her marriage (not to mention providing a horribly ironic counterpoint after her murder), but she still didn't deserve to die the way she did (or any other way, for that matter).
It's a bold choice on the filmmakers' part not to posthumously varnish Shanann (and on her loved ones' part to provide occasionally unfavorable moments for use in the film), knowing that she's still an innocent victim even if she sometimes acted snotty. American Murder goes on to emphasize who the real monster is here by running audio of Chris' confession to his daughters' murders, and the nauseating horror of what he did — and of just how many opportunities he had to change his mind — is also unvarnished. American Murder doesn't reinvent the genre, but it does use some very unusual tactics to powerful effect. While the title of the project might make it sound like tabloid junk, it's worth a step outside your comfort zone to watch.
American Murder: The Family Next Door drops on Netflix September 30th.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.