Released: 30th September
Seen: 3rd October
August 13 of 2018, Shanann Watts and her two daughters Bella and Celeste went missing. For several days police investigated it as a missing persons case until they came to a heartbreaking conclusion… Shanann and her daughters weren’t missing, they’d been murdered by Shanann’s husband Chris who had been helping the police since the start of their investigation. Chris would later confess to murdering his family (I’ll spare you the details, but it’s in this documentary) when his affair was discovered and he was sentenced to multiple life sentences. It’s truly a devastating crime and this documentary has a unique way of telling that story and it kinda works, for the most part.
Made from a combination of social media posts, police body cam footage, texts and security camera footage, American Murder: The Family Next Door follows the Watts case from the moment that Shanann is considered to have gone missing to the moment that Chris is sentenced, slowly laying out the investigation as it happened and telling this horrifying story, largely by focusing on the victims which is so rarely done in these kinds of crime stories. It never goes into pure sensationalism, it doesn’t do a dramatic shot of the bodies (and it could’ve, we know there would probably be photos of them) or recreate the murder or anything like that. We’re invited to watch the process of this investigation play out piece by piece, like a fly on the wall.
On the one hand, this method of telling the story is fascinating. With no voice overs or interviews of any kind we’re left with just raw reality, what actually happened and what was captured on camera. It’s cold and clinical at times but there’s also something fascinating about it, like we were just scrolling through the case files and getting drip fed the evidence as we went along. There’s something interesting seeing the facts unfold piece by piece and slowly revealing the monster behind the horror that we’ve been invited to witness.
On the other hand, it only lets us see the surface level of what happened and what’s usually interesting about these kinds of true crime documentaries is the psychiatry, the exploration of why a person would do this, talking to people who were there and how this affected them. Here we’re just given everyone’s immediate reactions to what happened, as presented through badly filmed video with sound that’s never consistent. I absolutely get that it’s what they had to work with, but this is also why you usually use this as B-roll footage while talking heads explain the processes. So the question becomes how much grainy footage with iffy audio you can handle and I can handle a lot, but what I’m less good with is this feeling that I’m just reading the Wikipedia article.
While the case is fascinating and the presentation is certainly interesting, it still leaves me wondering what the friends who came to the house thought when they saw Chris pull up, what the cops interrogating him did when they left him alone for a while, what the prosecutor thought during the trial (which is one of the few things that we really don’t see much of), the inner workings of everyone’s minds is what I’m missing here and it’s denied due to how the film is presented. We’re left with a bare bones timeline of footage taken in the moment, which is OK but it just feels shallow.
American Murder: The Family Next Door does a lot of things right, from letting the focus be on the victims and giving them a voice to not relying on sensationalism to get the story across. It still feels like it could’ve been better and gotten into more details than just the basic blow by blow but what’s there is still a fascinating story to say the least.