American Murder: The Family Next Door


The smiling faces of the brutally murdered.

(2020) True Crime Documentary (NetflixShanann Watts, Chris Watts, Sandi Rzucek, Frank Rzucek, Celeste Watts, Bella Watts, Mark Jamieson, Ronnie Watts, Cindy Watts, Frankie Rzucek, Nickole Atkinson, Nichol Kessinger, Michael Rourke, Luke Epple, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Tom Mustin, Theresa Marchetta, Karen Leigh. Directed by Jenny Popplewell

 

The Watts family of Frederick, Colorado seemed to be as normal as they come. Chris Watts worked for an oil company; his wife Shanann – 15 weeks pregnant – worked for a marketing company. She had arrived home from a business trip early at nearly 2am on August 13, 2018, dropped off by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Later that day, when Shanann missed an OB-GYN appointment and after Nickole texted her friend without getting a response, Atkinson called Chris to let her know she was worried about Shanann.

At the Watts residence, it turned out that Shanann and both of their daughters – four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste – were all missing. The police were called. Chris addressed the media and pleaded for the safe return of his family, but as the investigation continued, the picture of a perfect family began to unravel and it turns out that the couple was having intimacy issues, despite the fact that Shanann was pregnant.

Eventually, the truth came out and it would send shock waves throughout the community that the family lived in, but also through the families of both Chris and Shanann. Those who have any sort of interest in true crime can guess where the investigation led.

British filmmaker Popplewell takes a unique spin on the events of a case that was fairly well-known at the tail end of 2018 (he would be convicted in November of that year, a mere four months after the crimes were committed which is lightning fast by judicial standards). Rather than using tried-and-true true crime tropes like dramatic recreations, talking-head interviews with the family and friends of those involved as well as the investigators, and expert testimony, she tells the story entirely through social media posts by the victim, text messages from the victim to her husband and to Atkinson, and police surveillance footage of both the polygraph, the confession as well as body-cam footage of the initial response to the victim’s home.

I give Popplewell full marks on this unique spin on the true crime documentary. You won’t see another film quite like it, and you get a bit of a sense of who the victim was as well as her husband. This serves to give the story an immediacy that sometimes lacks from other true crime documentaries, but it also lacks the emotional impact. We see things from a distance; for the most part, the family was depicted as happy and normal but when the computer was turned off, reality was a different story. For those who routinely watch true crime shows like Dateline: NBC and 48 Hours, this will feel familiar; it will also feel like you know what happened even before the police get their confession, even if you aren’t familiar with the details of the case as Da Queen was not, yet she accurately predicted who the killer would be, basically from the moment that they were reported missing.

Fredrick is the kind of suburban neighborhood that is movie-perfect; manicured lawns and beautiful homes, kids playing in the streets, everybody knows everybody else. Spielberg couldn’t have painted a more comforting picture, but yet a brutal crime took place here nevertheless which should give the viewer pause. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique presentation of a true crime documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really very surprising for even casual followers of true crime.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime was also depicted in a 20/20 episode as well as on episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. The murder was also the subject of Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer which the family of Shanann Watts was not consulted about and spoke out against
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any number of shows on the Discovery ID channel.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Herb Alpert Is…

Murder on the Cape (Murder on Cape Cod)


A romantic and picturesque image does not a great movie make.

(2017) True Crime Drama (Vision) Josh Walther, Jade Harlow, Heather Egeli, Tim Misuradze, Chris Lazzaro, Kevin Cotter, John Clayton, Sarah MacDonnell, Bragan Thomas, Bryce Egeli, Christina Egeli, Tobias Everett, Lisa Hayes, Alison Hyder. Directed by Arthur Egeli

 

This film, which has made some film festival appearances before moving on to various streaming and VOD services, is based on the real-life murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington. The crime has been the subject of a 48 Hours investigation and more recently a video podcast by the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 revisiting the crime.

As with most true crime films some of the details are changed but we’ll get to that in a moment. In Murder on the Cape fashion writer Elizabeth Baldwin (Harlow) has moved from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the quiet and picturesque New England fishing village of Denton Harbor (a fictional town standing in for the real location of Truro, Massachusetts). Mike Luna (Walther), an unemployed fisherman who is delivering firewood to help make ends meet for his family, brings some to Baldwin who takes a liking to the handsome and burly Mike.

Mike is married to Nancy (H. Egeli) who is supportive but is running out of patience. Mike insists that he’s a fisherman and that’s what he’s meant to do; when a job working for the town police department monitoring the shellfish population and making sure that people have the proper permits to harvest them. Mike considers it a humiliating job but after a dust-up with Nancy he admits that he needs the work and does what he has to.

He runs into Elizabeth when her neighbor Peter Benedict (Misuradze) inadvertently violates town policy and gets hypothermia in the process. Although Peter has ideas about developing a romantic relationship with Elizabeth, she only has eyes for Mike. Flattered by the attention, he begins an extramarital affair with the beautiful writer.

Eventually the inevitable happens and he gets her pregnant which leads to a series of complications. Then when Elizabeth turns up brutally murdered, the list of suspects is long but only the town’s ne’er-do-well drug dealer (Lazzaro) knows the truth about who really murdered Elizabeth Baldwin.

The cinematographer Jonathan Mariande acquits himself nicely with some beautifully shot footage mainly in picturesque Provincetown, Massachusetts. One gets a real sense of the charm of a New England village and of the pace of life on the Cape.

The titular murder doesn’t take place until near the very end of the film and there is no focus on the police investigation that followed – if you’re interested in that (and the story is an interesting one) it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find the footage from the various network newsmagazines that covered the murder. The Egelins and co-writer Ian Bowater focus more on the circumstances of the star-crossed lovers (the real person based on Mike Luna was a prime suspect early on in the case; one doesn’t get that sense from the movie) and on the economic upheaval that brought poverty to much of the fishing community in Denton Harbor. That’s fascinating material. However, those who are familiar with the case may be aware that there are some very significant differences between real and reel in this case.

Unfortunately they torpedo what could have been a much more interesting film by focusing on the more prurient aspects of the affair. The dialogue is a bit clunky and the actors look uncomfortable reciting it. This comes off as a made-for-TV film in a lot of ways and not in ways that I would especially be pleased about. The movie doesn’t really add a whole lot to the genre but there are enough entertaining elements to make it worth checking out if you happen upon it.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is lovely showing off Provincetown very nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels very much like a Lifetime TV movie with somewhat stiff acting and clunky dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, some disturbing images and an off-camera murder.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arthur Egeli and his wife Heather who co-wrote the film knew some of the people involved in the Christa Worthington murder including the woman based on the character that Heather plays.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Foxcatcher
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Family I Had