American Murder: The Family Next Door

Director: Jenny Popplewell
Features: Nickole Atkinson, Jim Benemann, Luke Epple, Mark Jamieson, Nichol Kessinger, Marcelo Kopcow, Karen Leigh, Theresa Marchetta, Tom Mustin, Michael Rourke, Frank Rzucek, Frankie Rzucek, Sandi Rzucek, Bella Watts, Celeste Watts, Chris Watts, Cindy Watts, Ronnie Watts, Shanann Watts
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2020
Country: U.S.
American Murder
American Murder: The Family Next Door

Even since the phenomenal success of The Blair Witch Project (1999) more than two decades ago, there have been dozens and dozens of so-called “found footage movies”—generally either horror or science fiction stories—that purport to be constructed of actual, raw, documentary footage. It is all a conceit, of course, a stylistic approach that is designed to both enhance the supposed realism of the story and maximize limited budgets. Some have been good, some have been bad, but all of them have been constructs designed to fool a consenting audience into believing they are seeing something “real.”

And now we have American Murder: The Family Next Door, which actually is a genuine found footage movie. Well, the footage hasn’t been “found” so much as it has been collected and curated by director Jenny Popplewell, but the effect is still striking: a true crime documentary constructed entirely from footage captured before and after the crime: home videos, Facebook posts, footage from police body cams, police station cameras, and home surveillance and doorbell cams, news reports, recorded phone calls, and text messages. All of it is presented without narration or explanation; there are no interviews, no reconstructions, no Voice of God narration. As it turns out, our digital world of constant recording and archiving and posting has enabled Popplewell to tell the story just by piecing together pre-existing pieces of audio and video. American Murder is as much a portrait of how incredibly well documented our lives are in the digital age as it is a true crime story about familial murder and failed cover-up.

Most of us remember the case from a few years ago, in which a handsome father and husband named Chris Watts appeared on news reports in Colorado begging for information about his missing wife, Shanann, and their two young daughters, 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste. It was a tragic story from the very beginning, as any hope that the missing family members would be magically found were thin, and the worst was soon realized when their bodies were discovered: Shanann buried in a shallow grave near remote oil tanks into which the young girls’ bodies had been shoved. Chris eventually confessed to the triple murder, as police discovered that he was involved in an extramarital affair and aspects of his story simply didn’t add up. His sociopathy was matched only by his criminal incompetence.

As assembled by Popplewell, a former producer and director of reality television series like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and editor Simon Barker (The King), American Murder allows us to view the unfolding tragedy from multiple perspectives, some of which are incredibly, perhaps questionably, intimate (we read Shanann’s text messages to her friends about Chris’s lack of sexual interest in her). We see various news reports, which provide distance and “objectivity,” and we also see body cam footage from the officers who were first called out to the Watts’s house when Shanann didn’t show up for work. We see Chris’s neighbor confide in the officer that Chris isn’t acting normally, and we see the footage from the interrogation room where Chris tries and fails to spin a cover-up that doesn’t pass a lie detector. Interestingly, the one figure who remains enigmatic is Chris, as we only see him through others’ eyes: the home videos shot by Shanann, the text messages she wrote to him and others, the news reports first framing him as a victim and then as the most horrible of monsters—the brutal killer of his own family. The police body cam footage of him professing concern about his missing family mere hours after he had killed them is positively unsettling, but it is in no way illuminating.

What is perhaps most intriguing about American Murder, though, is the way it puts into such stark relief the distance between how we present ourselves online and how we actually live. In her Facebook posts and videos, Shanann presented her life with Chris and the girls as ideal, happy, and loving, while her text messages to him and her friends paint a picture of stress, disconnect, anger, and resentment. Seeing both sides allows us to go into an uneasy place in which we can see through the surface, such as when Chris arrives at the airport after not having seen Shanann for five weeks and is clearly uninterested in being with her. We see the façade and we see behind it, which makes American Murder much more than a true-crime documentary. Rather, it is a peek behind the veil of digital culture, in which the online world of self-curated and framed social media hides heartbreak and misery and, in this case, death.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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