Review: Netflix’s ‘American Murder: The Family Next Door’ uncovers disturbing crime

Netflix’s gruesome, true crime documentary, “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” brings attention to one of the most inhumane crimes in recent years, retelling the story of the 2018 Watts family murders in Colorado.

Following Christopher Watts for the murder of his pregnant wife, Shannan Watts, and his two young daughters, Bella Watts and Celeste Watts, the story was retold through many interviews, podcasts, books and films. But, unlike the previous renditions, the new Netflix film directed by Jenny Popplewell uses first-hand footage to tell the story, allowing for a deeply intimate connection with those involved.

Popplewell’s vision for the film was for the protagonists to tell the story themselves through video clips and text messages, a vision she successfully executes. Although the previous coverage of the crime used opinion-based approaches, this documentary is a first-hand experience impossible to take your eyes off of.

At times, the footage was difficult to watch, but the rawness and vulnerability shown in the characters allowed the audience to gain perspective of the victims. Shannan Watts’ Facebook videos, footage from police body cameras, surveillance videos, interviews and private text messages amplified the destructive relationship between her and her husband.

Overall, the film was well executed, but one area it lacked in was objectivity, as it often emphasized bias information.

At a point in the film, Christopher Watts’ love affair and sex life became a central point in the investigation. Although the infidelity and the lack of sexual engagement with his wife did play a role in the murder, the director’s decision to emphasize that part took away from the severity of Christopher Watts’ actions. Instead of fully keeping the blame on Christopher Watts, somehow the affair became an excuse for his actions.

Throughout the documentary, living a double life became the main narrative. Online, Christopher Watts was a loving husband and father, while his off-screen relationship with his family was phony and unfaithful. The director showed many faulty aspects of Christopher Watts but failed to do the same with Shannan Watts.

Shannon was very active on social media and had a large fan base, and as soon as the news broke, her audience expressed their sadness. Unfortunately, not every person was as saddened online. Some people said, “One that I would label a narcissist was Shannan,” others added, “She was a bitch.” The many negative responses people shared online was only talked about briefly in the documentary.

One of the most shocking aspects of the film was how Christopher Watts acted during the interviews. The void in his eyes and the lack of sympathy in his voice was chilling to watch, given the fact that his wife and children were dead.

It was saddening to learn about how and why the crime was committed on a deeper level and to see home videos of the Watts family living a happy life, but many questions still remain.

As for his daughters, the question remains as to why Christopher Watts would take their lives too.

“Couldn’t I have saved my girls’ lives? Couldn’t I have done something? Why did I do it? I don’t know,” Christopher Watts said in the movie.

A man that was supposed to be the protector of his home allowed himself to be led by lust and selfishness that ultimately made him the villain that his family needed to be protected from, a plot upsetting to witness.

Although the focus of the film was on the romanticized tragedy Christopher Watts caused, the documentary gave his family a voice and the opportunity to reveal the truth behind the tragedy.

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