Since true-crime cable-TV movies that dramatize terrible domestic offenses committed against women tend to have creepiness and exploitation baked in, it's no surprise that Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer boasts plenty of both ingredients. But the latest Lifetime opus, scheduled to debut at 6 p.m. on Saturday, January 25, takes these elements one crucial step further to wind up in the realm of genuine offensiveness.
Not only does the film depict one of the most heartbreaking Colorado crimes in recent memory — during the summer of 2018, Frederick resident Watts killed his pregnant wife, Shanann, and their two young daughters, Celeste and Bella, then calmly went public to ask for help in finding them — but it also implies that Watts's homicides weren't motivated just by subtly vicious amorality and rage, but by an adverse reaction to weight-loss pills and patches that Shanann energetically marketed as a sales representative. In essence, the movie provides an excuse for his sociopathic behavior while placing much of the responsibility for spurring the killings on the wife he strangled to death — as if she and her children would still be alive today had she simply chosen to peddle something else.
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The folks assembled to spin this sordid web know the territory. Writer Barbara Marshall penned the 2018 remake of The Bad Seed for Lifetime (Rob Lowe was the star), and director Michael Nankin is an episodic TV veteran with credits that include CSI: Crime Investigation, The Purge and Van Helsing. And while Sean Kleier, who plays Watts, hasn't scored a ton of hits (he's been part of failed TV series such as Mr. Right, Happyish and Odd Mom Out and had a small role in Ant-Man and the Wasp), Ashley Williams, as Shanann, is well known to fans of How I Met Your Mother; she was Victoria, the woman all of America feared would turn out to be the title mom but wasn't (whew). And among the supporting cast is Brooke Smith, who had sizable arcs on Grey's Anatomy and Bates Motel, as real-life Colorado Bureau of Investigations agent Tammy Lee.
Thanks to this team, Confessions unspools in a deliberate, professional manner. But while the narrative doesn't quite transform Watts into a sympathetic character, scene after scene implies that his personality was changed by chemical means — a theory he floated in an apparent attempt to lessen his punishment.
During a sit-down with Frederick police, the CBI and the FBI, Watts spoke at length about Thrive, which this Oxygen item describes as "a weight-loss supplement that promises to boost energy and increase overall health through patches, pills and shakes. He was introduced to the regimen through Shanann, who worked as a promoter and advertiser for the marketing company Le-Vel, which makes the product. She can be seen in online videos and posts raving about it in an effort to recruit new users."
Watts insisted that he only used Thrive to support Shanann, and claimed the patch, in particular, caused his heart to race and interrupted his rest patterns. According to him, "I don't think I was probably sleeping more than three hours a night."
Clearly, prosecutors didn't buy the idea that Watts turned evil because of Thrive, and he wound up pleading guilty to the slayings, for which he was given five consecutive life sentences. But the Confessions filmmakers seem much more open to the possibility — though, in a transparent effort to avoid being sued, they changed the name of the product to Strive.
The movie opens with gauzy images of the kids playing over audio from a Denver7 report about Shanann's disappearance as delivered by Tom Mustin and Theresa Marchetta, now a spokesperson for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. (Later TV news clips are fictionalized.) Next, we see Chris in an interrogation room talking to Tammy Lee about his willingness to submit to a lie detector test. "If you had anything to do with your wife's disappearance, it would be very stupid to come in and take a polygraph today," she tells him, prompting a one-word response: "Exactly."
Cut to a flashback of Shanann revealing that she's pregnant prior to a scene of Watts on the job; he worked for Anadarko Petroleum. In a conversation with a co-worker, he talks about Strive and insists that it makes him feel great. These comments are followed by the first appearance of a montage used multiple times over the course of the tale; Watts empties pills from a Strive bottle into his hand, gulps them down and slaps a patch on his upper arm. Shortly thereafter, Shanann is shown recording a cell phone video about how much she loves selling this merch and announces that she'll soon be headed to North Carolina to "get my Strive on."
A couple of better-times sequences later (in one, Chris and Shanann are having sex when they're interrupted by one of the girls, who wants to know what rhymes with "helicopter"), Shanann heads east on her business trip with the kids in tow. Soon after they're gone, Chris has an exchange with a co-worker, Nichol Kessinger (Chloe Van Landschoot), that makes it clear they'll soon be getting horizontal, as the pair actually did in the weeks before the tragedy. But again, much of the dialogue revolves around Strive. After Nichol notices his patch, Chris says, "It's like vitamins and minerals — helps your body get fit," prompting her to coo about how the stuff is clearly working.
From there, director Nankin intercuts questions from the interrogation sessions with snippets that lay the groundwork for the Chris-Nichol affair; when she wonders about his living arrangements with Shanann, from whom he says he's separated, he asks, "Hey, would I lie to you?" (When she discovers that he absolutely would after all is revealed, Nichol is seen expressing shock and disgust.) Also screened are more promotional videos, including one in which Shanann talks about how Strive helped her get "my happy back" after being diagnosed with lupus, as well as further indications that the supplement is having a very different effect on Chris — such as images of him pumping iron like a madman while heavy metal roars in the background.
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The middle portion of the plot is dominated by Chris and Nichol getting sweaty while Shanann, who's staying with the kids at her parents' home, grows increasingly suspicious that something has gone awry in their relationship. But Strive continues to be a major theme. On one occasion, she wears a top pimping the pills and patch — and during a trip to the beach with Chris, who comes to visit, they're both clad in such T-shirts.
Meanwhile, back in the interrogation room, Chris fails his polygraph, prompting him to admit to CBI agent Lee that he'd been cheating on Shanann, whose return to Colorado is followed swiftly by the supposed disappearance of her and the children. Simulated body-cam footage of the cops arriving at the family's home precedes more prevarications from Chris prior to him belatedly coming clean and describing what happened after Shanann and the girls came home.
The depictions of these events is the money shot for flicks in this genre, and while Confessions demonstrates a modicum of restraint when it comes to the kids' fate (their bodies were dumped in oil tanks), Shanann's death is played out with the sort of gruesomeness sure to horrify her parents, Sandra and Frank Rzucek, who filed a lawsuit to prevent Watts from profiting from his deeds by way of books, television or movies mere months after their daughter died.
Earlier this week, an attorney representing the Rzuceks went on Inside Edition to denounce Confessions on their behalf even though they apparently had only seen the trailer at that point; he stressed that they weren't contacted by producers and had no participation in the film.