Directed By Jenny Popplewell
Starring – Chris Watts, Shanann Watts, Nichol Kessinger
The Plot – In 2018, 38-year-old Shanann Watts and her two youngest daughters disappeared in Colorado. With the heartbreaking details emerging, the family’s story made headlines around the world. Now, witness it unfold in real time, complete with an abundance of footage behind the scenes that vividly paints the picture of the family’s anything-but-ideal perception.
This film is currently not rated
– Unorthodox approach. Much of this movie’s success falls on the unique touches in production and storytelling direction that make it look and feel unlike any other documentary currently promoted heavily in the public eye. That begins with the decision to trade in conventional testimonial interviews for a barrage of police body camera angles and surveillance footage that cohesively takes us through the anxiety beats of the story. In addition to this, audible narration is also sacrificed, thankfully, instead documenting the events and letting the audience piece things together competently for themselves. This proves that Popplewell has faith in our intelligence, but beyond that manages to maintain as much of the real world circumstance and spontaneity that often feels intruded on by a movie with a mission. This is very much an original breed, and one whose formula will and should be emulated for generations to come by ambitious storytellers with an advantageous proximity to the events.
– Technical aspects. There’s much to appreciate in the way Popplewell stitches this story and its pivotal pieces together, primarily in the way her direction never diverts attention from what’s important. In this regard, the editing is patient, never trimming or framing itself in a way that shortcuts convenience. So in the same matter that Chris, the husband, endures round after round of tension-filled questioning by the detectives assigned to the case, we too as an audience feel the ensuing heat brought forth an environment we quite literally cannot escape, no matter how much our discomfort urges us to. On top of this, the subtly effective musical score by Nainita Desai breathes just enough presence in the underlying dread and despair that plagues this family, cementing such a feeling with the simplicities of piano and flute. These instruments paint a concerning picture of uncertainty that envelopes the entirety of the presentation, and never reach unnatural levels of volume accompaniment to feel meandering.
– Life imitating art. I’ve always thought that there’s no drama as deep and unforgiving as that of real life, and even though this movie continuously haunted my cerebrum with inescapable consequences, there’s much about the beats of the story that feels plucked or inspired from cinematic translation. Because of such, “American Murder” feels like a hybrid of 2017’s “Searching…” with 2014’s “Gone Girl”, two films that convey social commentary within tragedy through the scope of social networking. Like its two fictional predecessors, “American Murder” has as many twists and turns as a rollercoaster rising and falling from a high altitude, but what’s especially riveting about the drama in this real life capacity is the idea that it’s real people committing real bad moments of indiscretion, making the lunacy in the details all the more terrifying because its context is artistically inescapable.
– Unlimited access. The abundance of footage that I previously mentioned is easily the biggest benefit that the film has to offer, for so much more than just watching these events play out in real time before our very eyes. First of all, there’s something so eerily creepy about invading a bedroom only hours after a murder took place, complete with objects showing no evidence of a struggle or altercation. The various rooms inside of this cold, damp house feel still very much lived-in, just abandoned by its occupants, illustrating this like an unintentional ghost story made uninviting by its quiet. In addition to this, I love the storyboard framing of Shanann’s Facebook page, as well as her various text messages giving us access into the many details and candid moments of her life in the public eye. This says a lot about public perception that I will get to later, but its true intention serves as exposition for Chris and Shanann, in order for us to fall for the same ploys that their loved ones surrounding them did. It vividly paints a picture of a love story that wasn’t entirely truthful, and for better or worse invades on their privacy for the sake of filling in the gaps from an outsider’s perspective.
– Thought-provoking. There are many questions and debates that this movie brings forth about matrimony, infidelity, and even further validity of the police body cam debate, but the biggest onion petals that this movie sheds is in its use of social media, and the accountability for the access we get into people’s lives. “American Murder” is certainly an urgent call for clarity, in that it advises users of social media not to invest in what their friends and family are selling online, and that more accessibility surprisingly only brings back less truth. In the case of the Watts’ family, friends and family were left baffled by the people they evidently knew very little about. It certainly plays into the mentality of not knowing who you live next door to, but is even more alarming when you factor in the same uncertainty to people who engaged with and loved the Watts’ family, and were twice as shocked as anyone not given a green light into their daily routines.
– Psychology of the investigation. It feels nice to have a movie where the characters feel five steps ahead of the audience, especially those officers investigating Chris, who comprehend much not adding up about this man’s story before we start to cohesively put the pieces together. I knew nothing about this case going into the movie, but I will say that even though I predicted the who almost immediately in the film, it was the wealth of knowledge surrounding the how and the why that really spun my gears of curiosity, and made me wonder how the detectives were going to hammer their case home with so little evidence known or presented at the time. In the ensuing chaos, we are treated to a first hand deposition of a lie detector test where the law already know the answers, and are just waiting for the test to affirm their position. It’s interesting to see the weight of the psychology that they hold over Chris, particularly the confidence they instill that alludes to a wild card that they haven’t yet played. Simultaneously, we see Chris dissolve before our very eyes, and it brings forth an unnerving yet satisfying juxtaposition that brings forth the missing piece in tying the events of that fateful night together.
– Small details matter. If you’re like me, and desiring to play detective in this movie, you will appreciate the small ticks and observations along the way that vividly paint the picture of who is responsible for the disappearance of these three ladies. There are possibly hundreds of them throughout the film, so I will only share a few that turned me on to Chris being the prime suspect almost immediately. First of all, you notice between old photos of Chris and Shanann that the former was noticeably heavier during the first years of their matrimonial union, a tell that outlines him wanting a sudden change for someone or something. If that isn’t enough, Chris’s shaky demeanor and lack of tears during the initial search or television interviews is more than a bit concerning, and starts to hint at how very little we know about him despite the entirety of the first act painting him as this virtual Godsend, via Shanann’s Facebook videos. It rewards the most committed of audience members, and promotes future rewatches with a barrage of clues that solidify Chris as anything but a mastermind.
– Closing thoughts. The film uses its closing minutes in a responsible manner that raises awareness to a startling statistic. It states that every single day, three women are murdered by their spouses, a reveal that is not only symbolic for what we’ve endured in this documentary, but also one that sends audiences out on a crushing blow that cements the problem being anything but sporadic. If three makes a pattern, this statistic is more than enough cause for concern that this disgusting tradition is getting out of hand, and documentaries like these are always important in producing the kind of awareness and change, if only just for the way they execute the agenda on a grand streaming scale. It proves intention beyond its sometimes exploitative nature, and gives the problem an unabashed focus that sticks with you hours after you’ve finished. Because of this, I feel like Netflix was the perfect place to release such a documentary, not only for their vast collection of true crime releases, but also because in 2020 more people see a film on Netflix or other streaming apps than they do in the theaters.
– Imbalance of minutes. At a brief 82 minutes of film, “American Murder” occasionally stumbles on its way to a near perfect execution on the expansive elements of this case, often taking its time on unnecessary subplots while barely sifting through the matters that could use more attention. For my money, it’s in Shanann’s intimate conversations with her closest friends, which do help paint a picture of her deteriorating marriage, but are a bit too unnecessarily personal to give our audience full access to. It feels a bit disrespectful to the lasting legacies of her family forced to endure such personal details, and is the introductory moments to a sluggish third act that feels dramatically weaker paced than its two creative counterparts. Right as the trial gets going into the lead suspect, the answers come a bit too easily, and mishandle the dramatic tension which had been exceptionally built up to this point.
– Spoon-fed climax. Much of the movie does a superb job at holding back the most sinister details of this family’s trysts, but that all changes in the third act, when these devilish details become apparent, and a light is shed on what makes this such a compelling watch for true crime fanatics. The problem with such reveals is that it’s built up throughout by subtly promising this spectacular reveal that will blow everything and everyone away, and when it materializes it is just presented on a platter of neat and tidy proportions so cliche’d and dismissing in how it submerges every detail simultaneously. It underscores the landing during the moments when the deliveries should provide extra emphasis on what they’re delivering, and makes so much of the court case itself an afterthought that doesn’t come close to measuring up to what came before it.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+