2020 | rated R | Documentary | directed by Jenny Popplewell | 1 hr 22 mins |
It’s kind of a shame that Jenny Popplewell’s documentary has the generic and spoiler-ific title of American Murder: The Family Next Door, because for so much of it’s early, reverting, first half those of us unfamiliar with the true story playing out onscreen were glued to the edge of our seats wondering what happened to this missing mother and her two kids. This is a prototypical true crime film dropped in the middle of America’s insatiable obsession with true crime. It’s a compelling, sickening and disturbing story assembled with a straight-forward and appropriately cold workmanlike approach.
American Murder is the type of documentary the Academy loves. Popplewell stitches the story together entirely out of raw footage; from Facebook live videos, police body cams, security footage and increasingly heart-breaking text messages. There isn’t a sit-down interview or dramatic re-enactment in sight. There is no narrator and no commentary. No friends and family members theorizing about what happened. Just the frustrating reality of the crime itself from the mouth of the murderer themselves.
Shanann Watts is a lovely, beautiful wife and mother of two adorable daughters – Celeste and Bella – who just found out that she is having a third. She has a good job as a brand promotor for a healthcare supplement company. One day she returns home from a business trip, walks past her Ring doorbell camera and is never seen again. Her friends, family and husband Chris start a frantic race to find her and his daughters who seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth. As days go by with nothing the case catches fire with the media and it spreads from Frederick, Colorado, to the vultures on the internet and the world beyond.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the movie will be best experienced completely cold. It plays out like a real life Gone Girl and the ultimate conclusion is devastating. What unfolds here is shocking and cruel on levels that are hard to comprehend. It’s the natural inclination of the true crime fan to investigate why a murder happens, what psychological affliction or series of tragic events occurred to bring someone to this point. It is both to American Murder’s strength and ultimate frustration that the story has no clear answer, and the movie doesn’t theorize on an answer. It slaps us around and leaves the sum total of it all in our laps to spin on.
American Murder works as both a thriller and a Dateline mystery. I can’t say if there is a “best” way to present this material. The real-footage approach this movie takes is impressively put together from a technical standpoint. A true crime movie with re-enactments, interviews and theories that put the crime in a broader context and illuminate something about society and human nature is also good. The question is if it works for this particular story. I think the just-the-facts approach does for for this movie – that is, until the very end, when the movie can’t help itself, and it blinks.
American Murder blinks in it’s final title cards, offering up written commentary when it should have just cut to black. Framing the story around statistics of spousal abuse and murder. The problem, as it reframes it, is simply that men will kill you for no reason, without any warning. Don’t get married. It’s a frustratingly simple coda tacked onto a complex situation that should have just been left to speak for itself – or not speak for itself in this case.