Following in the true crime footsteps of “Amanda Knox” and “Abducted in Plain Sight,” Netflix has done it again. “American Murder: The Family Next Door” is a unique yet somber documentary about the true story of what happened in the Watts family murders case. The incident at hand deals with the murder of Shan'ann Watts and her three children — Bella Watts, Celeste Watts and her unborn baby, Nico Lee Watts — by husband and father Christopher Watts, who is currently serving five life sentences without the possibility of parole in a maximum-security prison in Wisconsin.
This documentary is unique for a variety of reasons. For one, the documentary is primarily narrated by none other than Shan'ann Watts herself. The way the production crew, led by director Jenny Popplewell, eloquently accomplished this was by using Shan'ann’s archived Facebook footage — mostly old Facebook Live broadcasts — and love letters and texts she sent to her husband. Aside from this firsthand account through Shan'ann herself, the other narration in the documentary comes from pre-recorded audio files of Shan'ann’s calls with friends, police body-cam audio and video recordings of the trial of Christopher Watts and police and media interviews with him. Notably, there was no new footage shown nor audio heard in the documentary other than the aforementioned existing files, which in itself is very impressive and a convincing way to tell this spine-chilling story. Additionally, this style takes away the possibility of second-hand source manipulation, the lack of which creates a very persuasive format which documentaries typically don’t have the ability to use.
The documentary also makes use of an interesting timeline, switching between the time before and after the murders throughout the film. In doing so, the documentary allows viewers to apprehend a full view of what happened, and also to learn why Chistopher Watts had the motive to commit these horrible crimes, namely murder, along with tampering with deceased human bodies and the unlawful termination of a pregnancy.
Another unique aspect of this documentary is its subtle teaching of viewers what signs to look for in a possibly harmful and deadly relationship. Although the documentary in itself is not a work of psychology, nor does it claim to be, a documentary of this nature inherently educates viewers on the signs of an unjust relationship and also how to help a friend in a situation like this one. Had Shan’ann or any of her seemingly loving and caring friends and family seen this documentary before, perhaps they would have picked up on some of the classic signs of toxic relationships — such as gaslighting and control issues — and the story could have ended very differently. This implication of the possibility of a different ending makes the movie all the more sad and emotionally impactful. Although the story is extremely disheartening, the documentary is a must-see for those interested in psychology, sociology, law or anyone interested in true-crime.