American Murder: The Family Next Door takes a hauntingly personal approach to the true-crime format, representing the best and worst of the genre.
On balance, I probably review more true crime than any other genre, which is usually an uncomfortable task. There’s something voyeuristic and rubber-necky about the whole thing at the best of times, especially where streaming platforms are concerned. If an individual had a DVD collection that even resembled Netflix’s true crime thumbnails, they’d probably be arrested in advance. Yet humanity’s capacity for great evil is dwarfed only by our desire to be told about that evil in detail across several binge-worthy episodes. Misery is bankable. And our thirst for it is predictable.
With all that in mind, Netflix’s new feature-film American Murder: The Family Next Door represents both the best and worst that the genre has to offer. For once, it doesn’t seem sprung to life by an algorithm. It doesn’t slavishly adhere to a traditional structure, mixing talking heads with dramatic narration and emotional interviews, hoping that ambiguities in the case will renew speculation. Its subject is pretty clear-cut, actually; the killer, Christopher Watts, pleaded guilty to murdering his pregnant wife, Shannan, and their two daughters. But that’s the selling point. The Watts family was a beautiful and typical nuclear American clan. They could have been your neighbors. Or mine. Their story is strung together through material readily available on the family’s social media channels or their phones. They lived publicly. They died in the same way.
Whenever a celebrity’s nude photographs are hacked and leaked, there’s always a counter-argument that they should have known better, that one’s private life in our always-online culture should be conducted with the expectation that some dork in their parents’ basement might guess your iCloud password. This is the expectation fostered by social media, which has given us unprecedented access to actors, musicians, world leaders, and each other, though with an Orwellian caveat. Once something – photos of your lunch, videos of your kids – is on the internet, it belongs to everyone. It can and will be used against you. In the event of your death, or your cancellation, everything you’ve ever said, done, documented, or shared will be scrutinized by the masses. Your entire character will be encapsulated in 240 characters. Shannan Watts agreed to post her life online, and her family has agreed for that material to be shared with the masses in this film. But it’s hard to feel comfortable with determining who a person was by their filtered snapshots and private text messages. It truth, it doesn’t feel especially far removed from going through someone’s bins.
The comparison to celebrity scandals is perhaps ill-fitting in the case of American Murder since the vibe it’s going for is mundanity. Shannan’s life and death are reassembled as a litany of innocuous social media posts since that’s how most of us live now; behind a public-facing image of domestic bliss, one that would never suggest that our spouse is a monstrous killer. The banal title is part of that. This wasn’t an American murder because it occurred in the United States, but because it was committed by a seemingly average American who made victims of his unremarkable suburban family for a particularly entitled reason – he wanted to start a new family, one assumes another averagely American one, with his mistress.
In stripping away the sensationalism and the mystery, American Murder also removes a comfortable otherness that usually accompanies true-crime stories. Audiences feel okay getting invested in these things because they’re not, on balance, married to serial killers, or likely to become patsies for a corrupt legal system, or in any rush to strangle their spouse and smother their kids, as Chris did. Even that, as horrifying as it is, is horrifying in its everydayness. He didn’t kill his family to eat them or keep bits of them as souvenirs or as a sacrifice to pagan gods. He strangled and suffocated them and dumped them in an oil field near one of his work sites, for no reason at all. Somehow, that’s worse.
Of course, Chris’s normal guy façade is just that – a fiction. In reality, he’s a dead-eyed nutcase, not representative of the average American at all, and in early bodycam footage of him speaking to police officers in his home, that’s quite clear. As the film progresses through the investigation, it keeps returning to the idea of a dwindling intimacy between Chris and Shannan, as though her (correct) suspicions of his infidelity were somehow a contributing factor in his decision to kill her. Here, in attempting to rationalize and explain the “why” of Chris’s actions, the film isn’t mundane enough. He did what he did simply because he was a monster.
If director Jenny Popplewell doesn’t always manage to justify quite how extensively Shannan’s private life is being disseminated here, she nonetheless takes great pleasure in detailing how Chris’s story was vigorously pulled apart by the police. American Murder: The Family Next Door is at its best in this procedural portion, where the curtain is drawn back and the performative ordinariness bleeds away. Beneath it all is a killer, just like always. But this one’s living next door.