American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Direct but superficial

I could not help but feel uncomfortable as watching Netflix documentary film “American Murder: The Family Next Door”, which was released on this Wednesday. The people behind the documentary want to present to us a close and direct glimpse into one shocking criminal case, and the overall result, which is entirely based on a bunch of various archival texts and footage clips, is often chilling to watch, but it does not wholly overcome its inherent sensationalism while merely scratching the surface of its disturbing main subject.

The documentary alternates between two narratives which eventually converge together with unnerving dramatic effects. While one of these two narratives is mainly about what happened after the sudden disappearance of an ordinary married woman named Shanann Watts and her two little daughters on August 13th, 2018, the other one follows her married life before the disappearance step by step, and it is notable that both of them are constructed from many different archival materials ranging from social media posts to law enforcement recordings.

Under the competent direction by director Jenny Poppelwell, the documentary gradually holds our attention with increasing uneasiness on the screen. In the early morning of August 13th, 2018, Shanann and one of her close friends returned from a company convention and then parted with each other in front of Shanann’s family residence, but her friend did not receive any call or text from her after that. Naturally becoming quite worried, her friend decided to call the police, but neither she nor a police officer arriving there could do much. There was not anyone in Shanann’s family residence, and they were allowed to enter the residence only after her husband Chris belatedly arrived at the scene.

Via a heap of social media posts from Shanann, the documentary gives us a vivid and intimate presentation of her private life during last several years. Before she met Chris in 2010, she was going through a very difficult time due to several reasons including the disastrous failure of her first marriage and a severe case of autoimmune disease, but she tried really hard to overcome these painful obstacles in her life, and then her life finally seemed to take a positive turn when she encountered Chris via Facebook. Although she was not so certain about him at first, they got quickly closer to each other after meeting each other in person, and that led to their marriage in 2012.

Along with two daughters born after their marriage, Shanann and Chris had resided in a suburban area of Frederick, Colorado, and a number of photographs and video clips posted on Shanann’s Facebook page show us how they looked fine and well with their children in their cozy suburban house. Around the time of the disappearance, Shanann was quite excited to find that she was pregnant again, and Chris looked delighted when she later broke this news to him.

It was clear that there was not any particular reason for Shanann to disappear suddenly along with her two children, reasonable doubt was naturally accumulated around Chris, who did not seem to be affected much by the disappearance of his family. One of his close neighbors noticed something unusual from Chris, and the police officer at the scene also came to suspect Chris, though he kept staying neutral as considering any other possibilities.

And then the documentary slowly reveals the growing cracks inside Shanann and Chris’ married life. They might really love each other around the time of their marriage, but they became estranged from each other around 2017, and, as reflected by her several text messages, Shanann was quite frustrated with how Chris did not even try to communicate with her at all. They subsequently attempted a rather long period of separation, but that only reminded her that there was not much spark in their increasingly problematic relationship.

In the meantime, the glaring evidences against Chris began to pop up here and there as the local police continued their investigation. Around the time when he was interrogated by the local police, they already found that he was having an affair behind his back, and they cornered him further after he failed to pass a polygraph testing, which he agreed to do despite a sensible warning from one of the investigators.

Due to the very title of the documentary, it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Chris came to have an eventual moment of breakdown, but you will be aghast at how he pathetically tried to avoid taking the full responsibility of what was committed by him on that tragic day. Thanks to his vile cowardice, Shanann’s parents and younger brother suffered more even as he was arrested and then put into the trial, and you will really feel sorry for their unjust plight.

At the end of the documentary, we hear a full confession from Chris, which is accompanied with another raw archival video clip showing here and there in Shanann’s family residence. That is where I came to have more doubt on the intention of the documentary. Sure, the people behind the documentary have lots of sympathy toward Shanann and her unfortunate family, but, ironically, the documentary distances itself from them as steadily sticking to its supposedly objective but ultimately shallow narrative approach, and it actually feels exploitative from time to time as casually delving into Shanann’s private life without much restraint.

In conclusion, “American Murder: The Family Next Door” is engaging to some degree, and it surely draws lots of attention thanks to the sensational aspects of what it is about, but I still feel considerable reservation on how it is about. Although I will not deny that I observed it with curiosity and fascination, I will let you decide whether you want to watch it or not, and I am willing to hear your opinions on it.

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