There can arise a certain satisfaction from rewatching a genre movie with a twist ending. You look back with fresh eyes, catching clues you’d previously missed and checking how well the plot works knowing what you didn’t on your previous viewing. Some movies, like Park Chan-wook’s endlessly twisting The Handmaiden, practically dare you to look again.
Jenny Popplewell’s American Murder: The Family Next Door, which debuted last week on Netflix, has a similar effect, even upon first viewing. So publicized was Chris Watts’ senseless 2018 murder of his wife, Shanann Watts, and two small children, Bella and Celeste, that it’s hard to imagine much of the film’s audience going in cold. And in fact, knowing what he did makes the experience of watching the events unfold that much more terrifying, as American Murder is largely comprised of pre-existing material. Popplewell has said that most of what viewers see and hear in the movie was made public by Weld County. This includes the responding police officer’s bodycam footage, which captures Watts’s first discussion with authorities regarding the disappearance of his wife and daughters and his interrogation, as well as his polygraph test (“If you did have something to do with their disappearance, it would be really stupid for you to come in and take a polygraph today…It would be really dumb,” its administrator tells him). As such, American Murder is the stillest, most bone-chilling found footage horror movie I’ve ever seen.
In the hours and days after Shanann’s friend first reported her missing, Watts repeatedly played dumb—to the responding police officer, on the news, while being interrogated, and during his polygraph. Seeing the degree to which he was willing to lie to cover his ass, while simultaneously being so bad at it that even his neighbor could tell something was amiss during a brief viewing of security cam footage the day after, is nonetheless astounding. When Watts claims, “I am not a monster,” in the interrogation room, we know better and we know why to be afraid. We’re smothered by layers of disbelief—at what he’s saying and trying to get away with. Popplewell has pulled off an impressive feat: She has constructed a narrative, which knowing the ending of enriches the viewing experience.
Via Shanann’s mother, Popplewell gained access to Shanann’s phone and computer, which yielded a trove of videos and messages that deepen the story. Additionally, in terms of already public material, Shanann was extremely active on social media—again, the context makes everything more poignant. So many of the videos she filmed rhapsodizing about her husband’s goodness, lavishing her daughters with affection, discussing her lupus diagnosis, sharing Celeste’s food allergies—undoubtedly seemed like run-of-the-mill lifecasting when originally posted. Just another enthusiastic mom sharing what makes her proud. Ripped from Facebook and contextualized within the story of an imploding marriage—which she seemed desperate to save—and infuriatingly short life, this material conveys to outsiders the depth of the tragedy at hand. Shanann’s lack of awareness stands in stunning contrast to viewers’ knowledge of where the story is going. Seeing her smile about her family is heartbreaking. It’s almost too much to take.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Popplewell said, “People might be disappointed that I haven’t solved the case. I haven’t figured out why he did this, but it’s not that type of true-crime documentary. We’re not solving the case, we’re hearing Shanann’s story about a broken heart and understanding what happens when you love someone so much, and suddenly they don’t love you back.” Indeed, her technique does serve to center Shanann, but I think it also makes the story of Chris Watts that much more terrifying. As an outsider, the lack of a why can consume you—its absence here reminded me of the trial of “killer nanny” Yoselyn Ortega, which I covered for this site in 2018. Because Ortega’s was an insanity case—that is, there was no question that she was the one who killed two young children under her care, what was to be determined was her motivation—the why was at the forefront of both sides’ line of questioning. The state of New York argued that some sort of resentment or shame caused Ortega to lash out at her employer Marina Krim and punish her by murdering her children; her defense attorneys argued that she believed she was being tempted by demons. Though she was eventually convicted of murder, that hardly provided closure to the Pandora’s box of questions her case opened.
And so it is with Watts. Why did he kill his wife and kids, as he eventually confessed to, after initially telling his father that he’d killed Shanann because she’d killed their children (and then confirmed to authorities that he was okay with the press receiving this information)? Did he “snap?” Did it have something to do, as one of his interrogators suggested, with wanting to start a new life with Nichol Kessinger, with whom he was cheating on Shanann? Did he want to get rid of his old life in such brutally literal terms? Could tension between Shanann and his family, including a fight she had with his mother over Celeste’s food allergies, have factored in? Intimate partner violence is never reasonable—to what degree did Watts’s atrocity conform or diverge from the typical heinousness of such crimes? The unknowing is truly haunting.