American Murder: The Family Next Door

Photograph courtesy of Netflix
Rating 7.7
Streamer Netflix
Seasons 1
Episodes 1 x 80 mins

Netflix won’t shy away from the opportunity to cash in on a true crime tale, we viewers gawp in horror at the latest tragic story they have lured us into watching. But one from last year stood out among the rest, leaving Twitter storms of horrified viewers and sparking news articles discussing the film’s impact. All this fuss, about your typical American Family Next Door.

Shanann and Chris Watts lived the typical suburban life – they and their two daughters Bella and Celeste lived in a fairly affluent neighbourhood in Colorado. In this film, we see home movie style footage of them leading a happy life – there’s footage of the pair grinning like Cheshire cats on their wedding day, Shannon baking biscuits with her kids and even announcing a third pregnancy to her husband. According to their social media accounts, they were the perfect family. But then Shannon disappears.

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It’s soon revealed that her husband Chris had killed her, dragged her body into the car along with her two daughters and drove them to a remote spot, before killing them too. It is the most horrific, brutal story, and if you’re feeling in any way fragile we really wouldn’t recommend this for your evening viewing.

But if you are up for it, then this is more than just a monster murderer story – the documentary film unpicks the ways we use social media, and the falsehoods we allow people to believe. Using Shannon’s own social media footage and snapshots, filmmaker Jenny Popplewell creates an intimate portrait of the outwardly perfect family who are inwardly in turmoil, reminding us all not to fall victim to the idealised versions of themselves people post online.

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As a film, it is completely harrowing. Learning how this husband not only killed his wife and children, but did so in cold blood, it’s unsurprising that there has been so much outrage. And there is that uncomfortable question over whether or not we should be watching these gruesome tragedies, and whether by doing so we glamorise them. But, dear viewer, we’ll leave that dilemma with you.

It’s one that The New York Times’s Bilal Qureshi struggles with too – however he says this “is a thematic film about marriage and the deception of social media, as well as a piercing examination of domestic violence constructed with care and undeniable craft.” And this is likely why the film has now been nominated for a BAFTA for best single documentary.  The Telegraph’s Katie Glass adds, “the show builds on our horror at realising such an appalling crime can take place in such an ordinary setting, in an ordinary family, carried out by a seemingly ‘ordinary’ husband.”

First shown October 2020. You can watch the trailer here:

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