TV-MA, because it's about a real family that is murdered. You know, possibly the most gruesome thing that seems tangible and real. It's not just the mother who is killed, but the two daughters are killed as well. Similarly, the movie talks about adultery and sexual issues within the marriage. It's a lot of uncomfortable material and a TV-MA probably makes the most sense for a movie like this. TV-MA.
DIRECTOR: Jenny Popplewell
What kind of messed up world do we live in when I consider true crime documentaries perfect date night material? It used to be New Girl or a rom-com. But I get kind of excited about true crime stories. This never was a thing before I got married. I think this is the exact thing that I would avoid. But since meeting my wife, I find these stories fascinating. American Murder may not be the most compelling true crime story, but it really does make a really compelling hour-and-a-half breakdown of how men genuinely are scary as get out.
There are a handful of things that I want to talk about that may be big takeaways, but I would like to focus one thing first and foremost. There's something almost a little disappointing about the whole movie. In all of the podcasts that we've listened to and all of the true crime docs / docuseries we've watched, I don't think we've ever absorbed something so mundane. It's probably a pretty bad side that we've become so comfortable with murder that the murder of a wife and two kids has become commonplace. But I'm looking at the nature of the story. The story is extremely open and shut. We know that the husband did it. We know that it happened for selfish reasons and it seems like a lot of it was unplanned. That's really the whole story. I think the true crime series The Jinx is the pinnacle of true crime murder shows. It's this complex breakdown of a real psychopath who keeps getting away with murder and the forces that drive him. Chris Watts is just a dude. He's almost the opposite of complex. He's in a relationship that is driving him nuts. He has an affair. He murders his wife in what seems like a fit of rage. Because the kids saw him freak out, he kills the kids. This seems overly simplified. But if anything, the movie stresses that it is even simpler than I just explained.
For Popplewell, I suppose that's the argument she's making. Chris Watts being just a dude means that there is something in men that is not to be trusted. I'm not writing this as a meninist. She's probably got a dark point. Throughout the film, Chris seems like an okay guy. While the movie heavily implies from moment one that Chris is the guy who killed his family, there's secretly this hope that he isn't that guy. He's so likable and go-with-the-flow in all of these videos. The only complaints about him come from Shannan's text messages to her friends. Part of me didn't even really want to completely acknowledge the text messages as well because the Chris that we were seeing seemed like a very different human being than the one being discussed in the text messages. Heck, I know that if I'm talking about someone I love in a negative way, I'm also in a dark place where I only see the awful things about this person. Popplewell, though, reminds the audience that these cries for help can't be dismissed like I just wanted to do. Shannan, while never envisioning her husband to be a murderer, sees that he has selfish parts to him that he doesn't let people see. She's almost as shocked by the outward presenting Chris as we are. As a dude, it made me question moments that I let get me down. Is there something biologically coded within me to snap and be a killer. I bet if you asked Chris before he had an affair if he thought that he could kill someone, I would guess that he probably didn't. Heck, I'll go a step further. I bet he thought he was the kind of guy who wouldn't think that he could have an affair. (Affairs puzzle me because I always used to think of them as things that only happened in stories.)
But all this brings me to an uncomfortable place. As much as I appreciate Popplewell's message about the masculine fragility and violence, American Murder offers something that no other biopic has really done. Shannan Watts was obsessed with social media. I know that Netflix has another documentary that just came out called The Social Dilemma that talks about stuff like this. But Shannan documented everything. Like, everything. The conceit of Searching was that everything we did was documented accidentally through our ties to social media and the Internet that a story could be told through passive found footage. American Murder, because of Shannan's obsession, proves this to be true. The film is a completely catalogued list of events caught on camera. Every moment of Shannan's life was posted on Facebook. She had a limited, but not negligible following on Facebook and so she posted everything there. It's through these constant videos that we get to see the character that Chris pretended to be (or thought that he was, I'm not taking a hard stance on that). It's just so much and there's something in me that starts victim blaming. Please understand, victim blaming is super gross. No one deserves what happened to Shannan and her kids. But one of the background things running through my heads is the artificiality of it all. I mean, I blog daily. I used to have a pretty regular podcast. I get the desire to get your name out there. But there's some thing always so fake about the videos that I was seeing. Chris and Shannan kind of were characters that didn't match their true personas.
No one could be that bubbly all the time. There was this narrative that they were perpetuating that they had a perfect life. Because these two people lived in this artificial state that involved complete strangers, they weren't allowed to ever let their guards down. I genuinely don't think that this artificiality was in any way a cause for Chris's violent outburst, so let's clear that up. But there didn't seem to be anything really healthy in their marriage. Marriage is ugly at times. It's about conflict and vulnerability. When that much footage is created about every single thing that they do together, how do they have time to be crappy with each other? Crappiness is important to the process. Loving each other when things are good is easy. It's when things start to go wrong that real development happens. Yeah, Chris sucked for cheating on his wife. He's not allowed to do that. But he also probably saw it as one of the places where he wasn't being videotaped and scrutinized...despite the fact that his mistress kind of did a sexier version of the same thing. He's got a type is all I'm saying.
The most heartwrenching part of it all was the kids. I know I'm not exactly going out on a limb here saying that the death of two perfectly innocent kids was the most devestating part of a true crime story. But we were wondering how he went through with it. One of his daughters, I think Cece, walks in on Chris killing his wife, her mother. He packs up the body into the car and tells the girls that Mommy's resting. He drives an hour-and-a-half to dump the body with a plan to kill the girls when he gets there. I get that, during the planning stages, that sounds like the only way out. He's in the heat of the moment as they say and you aren't thinking clearly. But an hour-and-a-half later to think about it and you still go through with it? I mean, the adrenaline had to subside a little bit by that point, right? The insult to injury part of the whole thing was that he killed them because he knew that he would get caught if they were still alive, but he got caught anyway.
American Murder is a decent true crime film, if somewhat a bit direct. It's so dark thinking about these being true stories, but they do serve as cautionary tales. It's dark to think that men have a killer inside of them. Maybe it is meant to keep me on my guard, but it's not something pleasant to think about.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.