American Murder: The Family Next Door (Jenny Popplewell, 2020, USA)

          American Murder: The Family Next Door is a chilling and effective documentary examining the case of Chris Watts, a Colorado father who murdered his pregnant wife and two small children in August 2018. While most followers of true crime have no doubt heard of the Watts case, Jenny Popplewell’s film gives new perspective to this event. The film is almost entirely constructed of text messages between the people featured in the film, Facebook videos and pictures, and police surveillance. In constructing the film in this way, Popplewell raises interesting questions about privacy and the self in the digital age. The idea that the reality we portray online is often a false one is something that has been explored in many films, but the Watts murders are almost a case study in this phenomenon.

               The first segment of the film uses primarily police body cam footage from the morning after the murders. A friend of Chris’s wife Shannan tips off the police, who arrive at the house to find that Shannan and the children have disappeared. Chris arrives, and this interaction between Chris and the police is very intense. With our knowledge of his guilt, watching the events unfold in real time is disturbing.

               Perhaps Popplewell’s documentary is more disturbing for the questions it raises, than the questions it answers. While there are hints of something deeper, the film ultimately does not really answer why Chris Watts murdered his family. That being said, the film does not seem to want to provide a deep psychological examination of this man, or the profile of other family annihilators. This makes it all the more disturbing, because there is a kind of hollowness and senseless at the core of this crime. While some may find the documentary somehow exploitative, I found it a tasteful examination of what happened in the Watts case.



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