American Murder: The Family Next Door, was released on September 30. Certainly Netflix could have waited to release it one day later, so it could appear alongside other movies and television programs typically scheduled for October. Maybe they made the decision out of respect for the families involved. Maybe the algorithm that Netflix utilizes to determine when to release its content decided on the last day of September for reasons only it knows deep down in its code. We will probably never know why Netflix releases its content on particular days, but American Murder definitely could have been released during the month Halloween, alongside other horror films. Because while American Murder is many things, in the end it is a horror story.
Commentary I’ve read on American Murder discusses how it serves as a rumination on the superficial nature of social media. Shanann Watts frequently posted photos and videos of her family on Facebook. She would upload happy scenes from birthday parties and family gatherings which, when taken at face value, would lead you to believe that nothing bad ever happened in the Watts family’s everyday life. You would think that the Watts family experienced no arguments, no temper tantrums, no money problems, no disagreements of any kind. Of course, we all know that social media platforms like Facebook only serve as personal advertisements for our lives, proof that we are enjoying life to its fullest, and that all is well. Knowing the outcome of Shanann Watts and her children, American Murder provides damning evidence of how manipulative social media is, in how we use it to deliver a completely subjective view of our own lives to people we know, and to ourselves.
American Murder also provides an intimate portrait on the breakdown of a modern marriage. Through text messages Shanann exchanged her closest friends and her husband, we come to the same realization that she over two months: that her husband was no longer in love with her, and was probably having an affair. They were together for eight years and married for nearly six, and Shanann could tell something was wrong when he neglected to call her when she was on vacation with the kids, how he neglected to kiss her when they eventually were together on vacation, how he would avoid being intimate when the opportunity presented itself.
The omnipresent nature of digital surveillance is also a subtext of American Murder. When a friend of Shanaan’s calls the police for a welfare check when Shanaan does not show up for a scheduled doctor’s appointment, police body cameras capture Chris coming home and every interaction he has with police. A neighbor’s home security system blankly records the moment when Chris Watts loaded his deceased wife and his two sleeping children into his truck early in the morning. Chris explains to the police investigating his family’s disappearance that he typically loads his tools into his truck early in the morning by backing his truck up to the garage. When Chris leaves his neighbor’s house, the neighbor immediately states that he never saw Chris load his tools that way.
American Murder is also a rare documentary that relies only on recorded footage to tell its story. Other documentaries have utilized this approach to great affect. Apollo 11 (2019), for example, managed to tell us about an event that we are all extremely familiar with as it unfolded in real time, sans interviews or commentary. The result was breathtaking. By avoiding the standard documentary tropes, American Murder is also extremely involving. There are no interviews with the participants, no reenactments of key events, or various talking heads commenting on what happened. All we are shown is footage of the participants before and after the murders, and the end result is devastating.
While the death of Shanaan and her children were tragic, American Murder also depicts them as a horror story. Shanaan and Chris were together for eight years, and up to the moment Chris strangled her to death, she never realized she was living with a sociopath. In the footage we see with Chris, his emotions never are out of balance. When Shanaan tells Chris she is pregnant, he reacts with the fake emotions of someone who just received a $25 gift card. He routinely diminished the strife between his family and his wife. Like other sociopaths, he passed as a normal person for years, hiding his lack of empathy behind a friendly smile. Then, after having an affair for a month while his wife was out of town, he decided he didn’t want his family around anymore and planned when and how to kill his family, and where to hide their bodies.
Shanaan had no indication that her husband was a family annihilator. To quote Richard Linklater:
no one really knows anyone. That’s the thing about relationships – people are always saying, “I want to know you, I want to know who you are.” But it is so hard for anyone to even know themselves. Who I am is always changing, so how can anyone else share in that?Richard Linklater, Before Sunrise & Before Sunset: Two Screenplays
Up until she breathed her last breath, Shanaan probably had no idea that the man she married, had two children with and was pregnant with a third would kill her or her children. If there is anything more horrifying than that, I don’t know what is.