‘American Murder: The Family Next Door’ review: true-crime thriller will grip you to the end

Netflix's chilling reconstruction of a suburban tragedy

In the early hours of August 13, 2018, 38-year-old married mother of two Shan’ann Watts arrived back at her home in Frederick, Colorado, after a brief business trip. The next day, Shan’ann, pregnant with her third child at the time, was reported missing by a colleague who had spent the whole day trying to reach her. Soon, it transpired that Shan’ann’s two young daughters were also missing from the home she shared with her husband Chris.

Two days later, after a lengthy interrogation by the local police, Chris Watts admitted to killing his wife in a moment of rage, but initially refused to shoulder the blame for the disappearance of the couple’s children. Eventually, amid media speculation, rumours and bonkers online conspiracy theories, Chris finally confessed to killing all three members of his young family.

In the new Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door, director Jenny Popplewell delves deep into the events that led to one of the most shocking and seemingly ruthless crimes in recent history. With extensive access to police body camera footage and Shan’ann’s own prolific social media posts and text messages, Popplewell details the events from the moment the young woman is reported missing, all the way up to Chris Watts’ televised and emotionally-charged court case a few months later.

American Murder
Chris Watts on the day of Shanann’s disappearance. Credit: Netflix

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the film is just how much material Popplewell has been able to assemble in order to tell this heartbreaking story. In our age of oversharing online, the director was able to get her hands on an extensive array of family holiday videos, photos and social media posts which painted the Watts as the picture-perfect American family.

Popplewell has done a great job of highlighting how deceptive we can all be when crafting our digital profiles. But although alluding to it briefly, the director sadly fails to condemn trolls who continued to speculate about the case, at one point blaming Shan’ann for what happened to her and her children. Forgivably, Popplewell can’t resist a certain amount of melodrama in the telling of American Murder: The Family Next Door, it’s a truly unbelievable tale after all. Hers is an expertly executed, sobering and, at times, astonishing account of deceit, jealousy and betrayal.

American Murder
Shanann and Chris Watts in ‘American Murder: The Family Next Door’. Credit: Netflix

Details

  • Director: Jenny Popplewell
  • Release date: September 30 (Netflix)
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