AMERICAN MURDER: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR (2020) tells a fascinating, gripping and unsettling true-crime story

The latest in Netflix’s seemingly never-ending run of true-crime documentaries comes in the form of a film about the disappearance of Shanann Watts and her two daughters in Colorado back in 2018, a case that shocked the world.

This is a very interesting true-crime documentary since it’s one that’s less about the mystery itself, the “what”, and more about the exploration, explanation and understanding of the “why” and “how”. That’s the approach that makes this documentary so compelling the whole way through. It does kick off with the usual structure of breaking down what has happened and posing a bunch of different options or potential outcomes so the viewer can piece things together. As someone who surprisingly knew nothing about this case, it had me hooked to figure out what happened to Shanann. However, the tone of the film and the overall focus is gradually shifting with each passing minute as it drops more little bits of information that seem to be heading in a very specific direction. As the viewer begins to figure out what is happening, it doesn’t confirm or deny those suspicions, rather it continues dropping more little pieces and clues until the exact moment the pin drops. It’s a moment that is executed really well and done so at about 3/4 of the way through the documentary, allowing time afterwards for the audience to really come to terms with and digest everything up to that point.

From the beginning, there’s a deeply unsettling aura looming over everything that’s happening. It’s clear from very early on that there’s something not quite right, and through the score, the documentary really hammers home that stomach-churning feeling. It feels like a horror movie and makes you feel like deep down you know what’s happened even though you may not actually have the evidence to confirm it. It’s chilling and intense right through to the end, where more major details are revealed within minutes, or seconds, of the film ending. The fact that this case has been so well documented helps this documentary immensely. It helps with being able to structure it in a very specific way so that there aren’t any gaps in the story once it all ends. Right as soon as it begins, it’s clear from the setup that there are going to be hard answers in the end, that this isn’t going to end up being an unsolved case you wasted your time watching, and that knowledge is all the more exciting.

I do believe this is a great documentary, however I can see where some criticisms could originate from; in regards to the fact that it’s not a very layered crime story. It’s definitely a shocking and surprising one, that holds your attention and forces you to question everything, but not one that could sustain anything longer than the 1 hour and 22 minutes we got. Even then, you really could condense this mystery, with all its evidence, down to maybe just an hour. However, I feel the time spent really fleshing out the story and exploring every avenue and character relationship in great detail is a nice touch. Much of the visual content comes from Shanann’s Facebook videos, which I gather were actually uploaded to Facebook, and having those in here really enhances the emotional impact beyond anything else in here. Without the inclusion of those videos that give so much first-hand insight into Shanann’s life, this would have been a dull documentary.

In the end, The Family Next Door is a solid true-crime documentary that takes its time to really explore every single detail of this case and paint a complete picture of the mystery from beginning to end. The case isn’t the most layered and doesn’t have the many twists and turns that other true-crime stories rely on, but it does a great job at building a gripping story that is unsettling the entire way through. I would certainly recommend every true-crime fan checks this out, whether you are aware of the story or not.

7.5/10

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