I was not familiar with the case of Shanann Watts, her husband Chris, and their two children before seeing Jenny Popplewell’s documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door. To Popplewell’s immense credit, she is never exploitative about the case, instead using it as a way to frame how our online lives contrast against our private struggles, and how what may seem like the perfect family online is a thin veil for a tragic home life. With the word “Murder” in the title, the documentary isn’t really concerned with “whodunnit” or following various clues and threads. The grisly outcome is obvious. Where the documentary draws its strength is in exploring the digital footprint Shanann left behind and the annihilation her husband wrought.
On August 13th, 2018, Shanann Watts came home late from a weekend away at a work trip. The following morning, she and her two daughters Celeste and Bella were missing. The documentary then cuts back and forth between her social media posts and private messages in the weeks leading up to her disappearance and police footage investigating and interrogating Chris in the days after. Through these two portraits, we get a look at how Shanann and Chris constructed their lives on social media, which obscured the serious problems their marriage was facing and made the ultimate revelations even more shocking.
The smartest thing Popplewell does is not try to frame her documentary as a mystery. Instead, it feels like a slow decline towards a horrible truth, and while the specifics of that truth are deeply disturbing and horrifying, we’re stuck on this journey because we need to get to the end of the investigation. The criminal isn’t a mystery, but the circumstances that would lead to such a horrific outcome are what catch our interest. Again, to Popplewell’s credit, she refuses to comfort her audience and try to “explain” the why of it beyond the facts of the case. By working solely from the social media, news hits, and criminal investigation footage at her disposal, American Murder does not attempt to make sense of the senseless. Sometimes there’s not a grand truth behind a monstrous crime; there’s only banal, pathetic human motives.
What Popplewell wisely taps into is in how the construction of our digital lives become almost a prison of sorts. Obviously, our social media profiles are as constructed as our outward personas. Even before Facebook, marriages could appear one way to the world at large while being completely different to the people inside of them. What American Murder shows is that construction being so fully fleshed out and really hammering home what’s been lost. In her social media, Shanann isn’t telling her whole story, but she is telling a story of the happily family she craved and the children she loved dearly. By using so much social media footage, American Murder moves Shanann and her children out of abstraction and gives voice to victims even if it’s limited by the sunny dispositions that social media demands.
The broader overview of American Murder is apparent in its subtitle “The Family Next Door”; the notion that by all outward appearances, the Watts were the platonic ideal of a happy family. Some may want more answers on who Chris was and his state of mind that would drive him to such an unspeakable crime, but Popplewell is more concerned on letting Shanann speak for herself through her social media and her private messages with friends. American Murder is not here to offer any kind of solace. There’s no exhilaration of trying to solve the crime or threads to pull. There’s not even a pattern of behavior to which we can point and try to apply to our own lives. At best, American Murder is a potent reminder that social media is a fabrication of the lives we wish to have—one where we’re never sad; where our families our perfect; where we’ll live happily ever after.
American Murder: The Family Next Door arrives on Netflix on September 30th.