After arriving home from a business trip in August 2018, Nickole Atkinson becomes concerned for her friend, 34-year-old Shanann Watts. Shannan is not responding to calls and no one is answering the door. Moreover, it's soon discovered that Shannan's two daughters, four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste, are also missing. Her husband and father to the children, Christopher Watts, seems baffled. Gradually, the horrific truth emerges...
We're informed in the opening that shot of 'American Murder: The Family Next Door' that all materials in the film were captured by police, the media or uploaded to the internet; personal messages and footages were provided by Shannan's family as well. 'American Murder' could almost be one of these recent "screen movies", such as 'Paranormal Activity', 'Unfriended' or 'Searching', where events play out through screens and various media forms. Unlike those films though, what's happening in 'American Murder' is very, very real.
As the police embark on their work, all documented via cameras, a frightening but highly intriguing ambience is created; that parallel relationship is the problematic nature of true crime material. We see much of Shannan's Facebook, how frequently she documents her life, which makes you wonder what we aren't seeing. There's a sense of loneliness and desperation the viewer senses. Shannan may not be all there, but she doesn't deserve this fate. As for Chris, he seems chill and nonchalant as he is interviewed by the police and media. It's easy to say in hindsight how guilty he looks (and that's not giving anything away - the revelation is there in the documentary title) but it's clear he won't keep up the charade for long. He's almost immediately cracking.
Set only two years ago, it's remarkable the amount of footage and access the documentary has a hold of, between television, contributions from authorities, social media, etc. You feel so close and intimate with its subjects, it's surreal. Clocking in at 83 minutes, it squeezes all it possibly can out of its subject matter. It could almost have been an episode in a show, but it works as a standalone feature regardless. Even though you know what's coming, the doc is so well put-together and edited that you're hooked. The emotion is also palpable, and there's something quite heartbreaking when the first confession comes out; afterwards, the full truth has you disgusted and on the verge of tears. An important final statistic highlights just how often these kinds of cases occur. One wonders if the style of 'American Murder' will be adapted by true crime documentaries to come.
'American Murder: The Family Next Door' is streaming on Netflix now.