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American Murder: The Family Next Door | Review

Marriage Story: Popplewell Explores Watts Family Tragedy

If Tolstoy asserted throuJenny Popplewell American Murder The Family Next Doorgh his opening statements in Anna Karenina an adage of all happy families being the same, before even sliding into his opposing notation about their counterparts, perhaps its time to realize there’s really no such thing as a happy family. Such could be the observation from sifting through the plethora of filmed materials regarding the Watts family tragedy of 2018, wherein a married Colorado man murdered his pregnant wife and their two children. Director Jenny Popplewell edits together an extraordinary amount of filmed material, from police body cams, a bevy of social media material from victim Shanann Watts, and the ensuing filmed courtroom trial to fixate on what may have been a media frenzy story with a narrative now so familiar it’s become an expected cliché—at least one mined continually in the annals of Dateline and other such sources of constant familial woes ending in murder.

In 2018 Frederick, Colorado, Shanann Watts suddenly went missing after returning home from a business conference. A self-made entrepreneur who survived lupus and built a picture-perfect life with husband Chris, with whom she had two daughters despite her medical diagnosis (plus a third child on the way), to outsiders, everything was bliss. Shannan was a prolific presence to her friends and family on social media, documenting every possible familial moment and posting it online. But to her closer circle of friends, as various text messages conversations would reveal, everything was far from serene. To Shanann, Chris’ behavior, who notably transformed himself physically several years into their marriage into a fitness fanatic, was suspect of an affair. As surveillance footage would show, Shanann never left her home the morning after returning from the trip, and neither did her two young daughters—at least not alive. When a concerned friend alerts the police only several hours later that morning of Shannan’s suspicious silence, an immediate investigation ensues. And, as it turns out, all potential avenues led directly back to Chris.

For anyone familiar with contemporary true crime narratives, as police procedurals will often tell you, the prime suspect is always the husband or spouse, the victim, as statistics overwhelmingly dictate, almost always a woman. Even for those wholly unfamiliar with the Watts tragedy, Chris is immediately suspicious in American Murder—the real surprise here is how the case is representative of a greater social problem as regards married men who murder their wives because divorce offers economic ruination, etc., not to mention the heteronormative reality of grown men and women unable to explore their sexual proclivities due to the social sanctions of monogamy.

Popplewell doesn’t present a case as chilling as it something easily avoidable if people were allowed to pierce through conditioned facades of what life is supposed to look like, including our inauthentic avatars splayed out on social media. However, the documentary doesn’t pose any solutions or answers, but relays an anxious reality of how a visual narrative of our actions and whereabouts can be spliced together thanks to our own omnipresent self-surveillance.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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