Note: This is a review of a documentary based on a real crime. If you are unaware of the subject matter and haven't seen the trailer, do not read this review or anything related to the film. The film offers an enhanced viewing experience when seen with no prior knowledge of the subject matter.
The Social Dilemma, a recent Netflix documentary, examined how social media platforms are designed to transcend the virtual actions into the real world consequences, by influencing our choices. American Murder: The Family Next Door countermands this idea by reconstructing events, which seemed all hunky-dory on social media, but which metamorphosed into harrowing tragedy in reality.
Over the years, social media has seamlessly become an integral part of our lives. While The Social Dilemma answered the 'why' and 'how', American Murder acts as a case study, offering a new perspective, and is exponentially more humane and distressing than the former owing to the sheer darkness of the subject matter. As our reliance on social media becomes more intrinsic with each update, aspects like how much of our 'self' we project onto the social media and the light in which we portray our personality have remained a subject of debate, both on an individual and broader level. This documentary allows you to figure out the conclusion for yourself.
While scrolling through her Facebook wall, Shanann Watts' life appears picture perfect, suffused with gleeful, inspiring, lovely videos and pictures of herself and her family – husband Chris Watts and daughters, 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste. Shanann uploads a continuous stream of delightful home videos, profound conversations about her health issues from the past, inspiring stories about how she overcame them and accomplished her goals, and the beautiful relationship with her husband. Her life is pretty as a picture. That's what her social media presence tells. Stony patches of her life never reflect in the feed and it is a conscious choice. Her projection is selective, not deceiving. However, in the context of the documentary, within minutes, we discern it's a sad delusion and how challenges are buried under her avowedly beautiful virtual presence.
On August 13, 2018, after returning from a business trip over the weekend, Shanann, who was 15 weeks pregnant with their third child, and her daughters were found missing from their home, swiftly setting a search operation in motion. It's impossible to discuss further without revealing what happened to Shanann and her daughters. It's not a spoiler; the title and poster give it all. The documentary – although it acts as a whodunit for much of its runtime – is not investigative, but a shocking reconstruction and a heart-wrenching build-up towards the tragedy. Her husband, Chris, strangulated her, then smothered their daughters, and disposed of their bodies.
As heinous and gut-punching the revelation is, Shannan's joyful social media presence leading up towards the horrendous day makes it heartbreaking to watch, knowing how the smiles will perish.
Entirely presented using archival footage – body cams, CCTV footage, and several videos of Shanann, granted access by her parents – it is a film made on the editing table. Director Jenny Popplewell and editor Simon Barker bestow a comprehensive picture of the person whose story they are telling, instead of just ticking off a list. We get to know her strength of personality and it only makes it more painful to watch her talk after her life curtly ended.
The man who committed an abhorrent crime is never demonised either. The film only slightly hints at his inconsistency and lack of acuity before the crime and never verbally derides him after his guilt is proven because the filmmaker understands pouring scorn on a ghastly criminal adds no value to the deeper sense of sympathy she wants to establish with the victim. One such smart usage of footage is Chris practicing a presentation on relationship deterioration and repair – the core conflict of their relationship – in which he suggests that work relationships might gradually progress into something more important, indicating his volatility as a trustworthy partner.
Such moments of profundity in the gloom, coupled with an agonizing depiction of life being slowly obliterated, push this devastating true crime documentary into an introspective zone, making you question how non-identical your real-life and its reflection in the virtual world are.