• Elizabeth McCafferty

The disturbing look into the Watts murder case as Netflix release ‘American Murder: Family Next Door

By Elizabeth McCafferty

British filmmaker, Jenny Popplewell, presents a raw and harrowing look at the Watts murder case that took place in 2018. A film that immerses the audience in a series of heart-breaking and chilling never-seen-before home videos, law enforcement recordings and text messages.

On 14th August 2018, the FBI and Colorado Bureau of Investigation joined an investigation into the disappearance of pregnant mother of two Shan’ann Watts. An alarmed friend had asked for an officer’s assistance, after her string of concerned messages had failed to be returned. Shanann’s husband, Chris, was also seemingly distressed by the departure of his wife, who had no apparent cause to disappear and was very quick to assist the police with their investigation, so much so he even agreed to a polygraph. In the days that followed, the police unravel haunting evidence and confessions that eventually lead to the discovery of 34-year-old Shan’ann Watts and her two daughters.

With the blessing of Shan’ann’s family, the film is strikingly raw and intimate, as we bear-witness to the incredibly personal and deeply tragic text messages that Shan’ann shared with friends throughout her and Chris’s relationship. The narrative has been entirely constructed from a series of social media inserts, home videos and official police surveillance footage. Some of the texts at times can feel a little too intrusive into Shan’anns personal life, which does beg the question of how exploitative crime documentaries can be in exposing people’s (once private) deepest thoughts. This being said, Popplewell directed the film with the utmost respect, in no way glorifying or adding dramatized entertainment to the film. The film is an important reminder of violence against women and the traps we descend into on social media, as we fall guilty to its deception.

The footage showed within the 1 hour 23-minute documentary, is un-unnervingly unfiltered. The juxtaposition of Shan’ann’s positive outlook on life, as expressed in her countless social media posts is uncomfortable to look at, as the extent of her unhappiness in her personal life runs parallel to what we see behind the happiness of her social media presence.

The biggest weakness within the film, is that a large proportion of the audience will already know who the perpetrator is. The film holds back the confession for as long as possible. Seeing as the case made worldwide headline news, the build- up will only be impactful for those rare few who aren’t aware of the crime prior to watching. The film poses a huge amount of reoccurring ‘why’ questions and begs the need for further explanation from the perpetrator. As Popplewell decisively articulates within the film, this documentary is not about the ‘guess who’ entertainment factor. The film focuses more on the journey into condemning the offender and explains the extent to which abuse against women is dominant in America. As more and more lies unfold, it’s difficult not to feel a deep sense of revolt after watching such a raw and first-hand account of the events that occurred and the extent to which someone is willing to lie.

A good proportion of time is devoted to interrogation footage. Having access to such raw and poignant footage was crucial to getting comprehension into the mindset of both the victim and perpetrator. In this case, there can be little understanding to the perpetrator’s actions as we witness the cold-blooded evil and manipulation shown on the footage. The fact that there was no re-enactment involved, due to the vast collection of material they were able to access, is to be commended. Popplewell made the film with compassion and humility, gaining the trust and permission of Shan’ann’s family to serve a haunting and deeply heart-breaking watch.

The presentation of this heinous crime will leave a lasting impression on all those who watch it, highlighting the supposed ‘normality’ of some its perpetrators. It’s a heartfelt cry for support against abuse, underlining humility and trusting instincts. Overall the film was a slow-burning but claustrophobic and terrifying insight into pure evil, as a sociopathic monster is uncovered.

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