American Murder: The Family Next Door

Dept. of Murder Most Foul


It took me a while, but I eventually got around to watching Netflix’s latest true crime documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door. Now I realise that I’m a little late to the party, but this was some pretty chilling stuff.

Shanann Watts' text messages to her best friend in American Murder: The Family Next Door.

I’m assuming that there was a moment in time when the term “true crime” came to be a part of society’s zeitgeist. For me it was Making A Murderer, the Netflix series by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos about the murder investigation against Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey in 2005. The series, which was released in 2015, sparked an interest in the genre. That documentary became a benchmark. In fact, a lot of what has become the cultural touchstones of the genre began with Making A Murderer.

American Murder is a feature length documentary that tells the story of the investigation into the disappearance of Shanann Watts and her two young daughters. Not to sound flippant or heartless, but the crime at the centre of the documentary doesn’t really stand out. It’s horrific and despicable but unlike Making A Murderer, The Staircase, and The Jinx, the crime itself was fairly straightforward. The investigation took about three days and the culprit was found guilty immediately. No drama, no red herrings, no M. Night Shyamalan-like twist.

Chris Watts as seen from the police body camera footage in American Murder: The Family Next Door.

What made American Murder stand out to me was how it was put together. In the entire 82 minute documentary, only a handful of shots were done by the filmmakers, and even then, they were just drone footage over the housing area where the crime took place. Practically the entire documentary consists of existing footage. Everything from the victims’ and their neighbours’ home security cameras, to news footage, police body cameras, interrogation room tapes, and social media videos, the filmmakers were able to put together an entire documentary without ever really pulling out a camera.

Look, I love documentaries, but I absolutely abhor recreations and reenactments. But to base your entire documentary on what is essentially publicly available footage is just ballsy and chilling. A lot of the documentary uses footage that Shanann had shot of herself and her family, and uploaded to social media, showing her “public” personality. The documentary also used private text message conversations she had with her best friend and her husband to flesh out the story behind the scenes that developed and culminated in her disappearance.

Shannan Watts' personal text messages to her best friend in American Murder: The Family Next Door.

American Murder doesn’t really stand out as a documentary of a crime. The crime was solved in days, the person that the police suspected confessed, the motive was straightforward, the victims were recovered. But as a piece of film, American Murder: The Family Next Door really is a documentary that could only have been done now. There is no other point in human history where we, as a society, are capturing so much video of ourselves, and have so much of our conversations recorded. Even more than the crime, that thought is what will truly stay with you after the movie is over and done with.

The Watts family in American Murder: The Family Next Door.

Post Script: There is a moment fairly early on that, if you notice it, will no doubt give you the heebie-jeebies once you reach the end. It may be a coincidence. But it’s also a little paranormal and very spooky.
Click here once you’ve seen the full documentary to find out.

American Murder: The Family Next Door is now streaming on Netflix.

American Murder: The Family Next Door
82 minutes
Director: Jenny Popplewell


About 12 minutes into American Murder: The Family Next Door, Shanann’s husband Chris and the police officer head over to their neighbour’s house to look at his security camera footage on their tv.

Chris Watts at his neighbour's house watching security footage in American Murder: The Family Next Door.

Just as the security camera footage ends, the TV goes back to show a National Geographic advertisement…

with a baby…

and then a skull in oil…

If you’ve seen the documentary, you’d know that Chris Watts murdered his pregnant wife and two young daughters, and disposes of the daughters’ bodies in a tank of oil, where he works. Coincidence? Sure. Maybe.
But definitely very spooky.

Bahir likes to review movies because he can watch them at special screenings and not have to interact with large groups of people who may not agree with his idea of what a movie going experience is. Bahir likes jazz, documentaries, Ken Burns, and summer blockbuster movies. He really hopes that the HBO MAX Green Lantern series will help the character be cool again. Also don’t get him started on Jason Momoa’s Aquaman (#NotMyArthurCurry).

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