In November, 2018, the Colorado resident Christopher Watts pleaded guilty to murdering his pregnant wife, Shanann, and their two daughters, then disposing of the bodies in an industrial oil field near their suburban home. It’s precisely the kind of gruesome story of a seemingly idyllic American family that inspires prime time news specials and true crime obsessions. What followed were televised exposés, Dr. Phil interviews and even a dramatized Lifetime movie. The new Netflix documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” authorized by the victims’ family, takes a less sensational approach, providing something more haunting and searching about the story.
The film’s power rests in the British filmmaker Jenny Popplewell’s decision to eschew the traditional form of the televised crime documentary — the datelines, the dramatic narrator and emotional interviews — to construct a narrative entirely out of archival footage. Shanann’s incessant social media updates, her video confessionals and text messages with her husband form the central material of the film’s narrative. Those elements eventually collide with police body camera footage and polygraph surveillance video of Christopher’s confession. The result is a film that feels eerily intimate but also expansive enough to reflect the distance between the online performance of a happy marriage and the devastating truth of a relationship’s unraveling.
I’ve struggled with this genre of storytelling and whether the voyeuristic attraction of such gruesome tragedy justifies the watching. But Popplewell’s film presents the Watts story as more than a crime story. It is a thematic film about marriage and the deception of social media, as well as a piercing examination of domestic violence constructed with care and undeniable craft.
American Murder: The Family Next Door
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. Watch on Netflix.