In August of 2018 the small town of Frederick, Colorado was rocked by the infamous Watts Family Murder. Two years later Netflix released the chilling documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” a detailed account of Shanann Watts and her two daughters, Celeste and Bella’s, disappearance.
After returning home from a business trip on Aug. 13, 2018, Shanann Watts and her two daughters were reported missing by her friend and colleague Nickole Utoft Atkinson. Shanann, who was pregnant at the time, missed a scheduled OB-GYN appointment and failed to respond to Atkinson’s text messages, sparking concern as she had driven Shanann home that same morning from the airport.
Netflix retells this horrific story with materials captured by police, media or uploaded on the internet as well as personal messages and footage provided by Shanann’s family. The documentary begins with an eerie showing of Atkinson’s worrisome text messages to her friend on the day of her murder.
Video from a police cam on the first officer who arrived at the Watts’ family home on Aug. 13 displays the initial investigation into Shanann’s disappearance along with the immediate speculation of her husband Chris, who seems to act stranger and stranger as time goes on.
Right off the bat, it’s easy to tell Chris Watts isn’t right. Upon hearing about his wife and children’s disappearance, he reacts unusually calm, almost cracking a half nervous smile every time he’s asked a question. When Chris finally leaves the scene, a neighbor to the Watts family, who’d been showing police footage from his front house cameras, declares that something’s up with Chris.
Viewers find out that just seven weeks prior to the Watts family murder, Shanann and Chris were experiencing a rough patch in their marriage. Described through Shanann’s personal text messages to friends, the couple was lacking in communication, quality time and, most importantly to Shanann, an avid sex life. A significant amount of tension had been manifesting between the two, coming to a peak when Chris visited Shanann and their daughters after they’d been in North Carolina without him for weeks. According to Shanann’s messages, Chris felt uninterested in her, leading her to believe that he was cheating.
It’s clear throughout the documentary that Shanann maintained the dominant role in the pair’s relationship. Once describing him as her savior, Shanann was referenced as sometimes bossy and controlling by her husband and his family. During his questioning, Chris admitted to cheating on his wife along with a list of other gruesome actions.
What makes this documentary especially enticing isn’t just the grotesque details of what happened, but rather the heavy attention paid to how investigations are operated. Footage of Chris’s polygraph test is displayed, showing the public just how interrogating it truly is. After failing his first round, Chris is asked over and over if he has anything to do with his wife and kids’ disappearance, eventually confessing his crimes only when his father is brought in alone.
The last 30 minutes of the documentary is what makes a lasting impression; something about watching real-life footage of a man admitting to appalling acts he committed against his own family just sticks with you. Confession after confession, Chris alters his story little by little until authorities finally uncover what really happened to Shanann and her two daughters at the hands of her husband.
Netflix’s use of security cameras, police cams, house cameras, recorded phone calls and text messages provides a different formula on how documentaries are usually made. Scrapping the usual face-to-face interviews with any and everyone related to the case, this film takes an entirely different approach, fully relying on the technology present on the day the investigation began. From background on who Shanann was to the complicated intricacies of her marriage, Netflix outlines the Watts Family Murder so perfectly it almost feels just a little bit fake.
Email Kacey at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @kaceyconnolly1.