‘American Murder: The Family Next Door’ Serves a Simple yet Unnerving Dose of True Crime

The setting is familiar by now in the annals of true crime: a pleasant suburban neighborhood and a couple that seems deliriously in love. Someone goes missing, and the entire façade begins to crack. Netflix seems to find new crimes every week to serve our way. But there’s a reason why we can’t get enough. A story like “American Murder: The Family Next Door” has the nightmarish quality of reminding us that what looks like true love can be deceptive, that getting married and having kids doesn’t always mean life is grand, that a smiling face can hide murderous urges.

Director Jenny Popplewell forgoes using talking heads, implementing instead a real time feel by relying on police body cam footage, news clips and social media content. It all comes together to tell the story of Chris and Shannan Watts, a married Colorado couple that seemed like an average, working class American family. Popplewell opens on August 13, 2018, when police arrive at the Watts home to investigate a pregnant Shannan’s apparent disappearance. Also missing are the couple’s young, practically infant daughters. From the beginning it’s obvious something strange is going on. Chris, a former pudgy guy turned buff and workout obsessed, is too fidgety and sloppy in his explanations. But what exactly happened? The narrative goes back through Shannan’s Facebook posts and text messages to cover her early struggles with lupus, how she saved up to buy a house and eventually met oil worker Chris. It finally seemed like she had found a decent guy. All seemed well, they had two daughters and were expecting a third. But as the story unfolds a more complex picture emerges of a marriage formed by personalities not in sync, and Shannan’s increasing suspicions that Chris was being unfaithful. What led to the infidelity and Shannan’s eventual demise becomes the documentary’s driving mystery.

Unlike the broader, at times multi-episode cases Netflix excels at, “American Murder” is a stripped down documentary. Its central weakness is in simply laying out the story without going any deeper than what we see or hear from all the assorted media used. This is also part of its intriguing allure. One can certainly argue that there’s an overload of true crime material on Netflix, if not most streaming services, but judged on its own, “American Murder” weaves in quick fashion all that makes true crime fascinating and unnerving. The story of the Watts is not without its complexity. Shannan at first comes across as highly sympathetic, and a perfect example of the modern American stay at home mother. She posts every big life update on Facebook, from family trips to a pregnancy reveal for Chris. This is how we like to present our lives online. Then we see her texts to friends and relatives, describing major tensions with Chris’s parents, who don’t like her “bossy,” controlling attitude. We get the sense Chris was too subdued for Shannan. His quiet demeanor, his reluctance to face Shannan as a temperamental equal builds an emotional time bomb of stress. Popplewell’s skill as a filmmaker is evident in how she generates this kind of tension from the participant’s own words.

But how does this all lead to murder? That is the same question you could ask about the majority of killing that place in America’s pristine neighborhoods. Not every true crime narrative has to ascend to the level of surrealism in something like “Tiger King.” Chris Watts became tired in his relationship, and soon enough started having an affair and could not handle the willpower needed to leave his slowly eroding marriage. With every layer of the case, his cowardly character emerges, particularly in the harrowing tapes of his polygraph exam and interrogation by detectives. When the crime itself is revealed, it is horribly tragic and also pathetic. 

For that Netflix viewer out there who enjoys dabbling in the streamer’s endless cache of real life’s violent tragedies, “American Murder” may not rank with the famous, grand titles. Yet it’s still a story about real victims who lived real lives before being taken away. There are no big plot twists or villains here, it’s unnerving precisely because it feels close to home.

American Murder: The Family Next Door” begins streaming Sept. 30 on Netflix.