TRIGGER WARNING: This series, and by extension this review, contains (non-explicit) depictions, descriptions, and conversations regarding the subject(s) of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other trauma-related crimes, as well as police coercion and domestic abuse among law enforcement. All viewers and readers are hereby advised to approach the series, as well as this review of it, with paramount caution and meticulous discretion towards both those affected by these traumas, and those in close proximity to them. Please be safe, and watch and read responsibly.
This review contains minor plot spoilers.
When I first sat down to watch the new Netflix original miniseries Unbelievable, I thought to myself “it’s just too bad that the Emmys are in a few days and Netflix is only releasing this now,” as it looked pretty good and I’m always down to see Kaitlyn Dever and Toni Collette rack up some awards consideration just to remind us all how fantastic they are. Turns out, I needn’t have been worried about that after all, not because the show made any last-minute Emmy nominations lists (voting closed a while ago), but because that was the wrong thing to worry about in terms of this show; what I should’ve been concerned with is Netflix’s complete inability to market their new projects properly, because I haven’t heard any online chatter from the more prominent film critics I follow or my friends yet about this show, and for many of those friends (far too many of them), it could be something they sorely need.
Unbelievable is a Netflix original miniseries that stars Kaitlyn Dever, Toni Collette, Marritt Wever, Austin Hébert, Danielle Macdonald, Elizabeth Marvel, Dale Dickey, Liza Lapira, and Kai Lennox, as well as a bevvy of other great character actors, and was created by Susannah Grant and Michael Chabon. The story is based on true events that begin with Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a high school student living in an apartment complex run by Rise Up, a program that takes kids out of foster care to help transition them into adult lives when the time comes for those kinds of changes. One night, Marie is woken up early in the morning to find a masked man in her room, who then proceeds to tie her wrists with her own shoelaces, and rape her over the course of several hours, cleaning up his crime scene afterwards with such care that there is no discernable DNA evidence left behind, at least not any that would be of much use. After the rape, Marie is bombarded by questions from law enforcement, medical offices, and people she knows about what happened, asked to recount the incident over and over, until the police eventually coerce her into saying she made it all up. With nowhere to turn and no one who will believe her, Marie’s life begins to unravel in all the worst ways, and eventually, she begins to believe she made it up herself.
Three years later, in Golden, Colorado, detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) is called on to investigate a rape case of an eerily similar nature to Marie’s. Eventually, she locks onto a suspicious pattern: one man in a mask, breaking into women’s homes, raping them, and scrubbing any DNA evidence that might have been useful to a police investigation. Soon enough, she enlists the help of Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), and the two women join their teams together in order to find this serial rapist, and bring him to justice once and for all, before they either run out of time, or he does this again, to someone else.
It’s somewhat strange to me that it’s taken this long to get a miniseries about any case like this, not only because the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have taken such prominence in the modern world, but also because there have to be any number of cases similar to Marie’s that have had to be revisited in the wake of those movements. How many women have been coerced or derided into telling others that they were giving false statements just because they were so tired of reliving their experience or recalling it for all kinds of different people over and over again? The number must be staggeringly high, especially if this series is to be believed in terms of its accuracy in portraying how these things usually go, and by all indications (including real-life indications I’ve been privy to), most of these cases either get dismissed or the assailants are handed sentences so light you could see the bottom of the ocean with them.
Unbelievable takes an astounding approach to its central story by splitting the story between two separate timelines running parallel to each other; Marie’s takes place in 2008, while Detective Karen Duvall’s storyline takes place in 2011. By letting the audience slowly come to terms with the fact that not only was Marie unfairly coerced into confessing a lie so the cops wouldn’t have to do the paperwork, she won’t be getting justice any time soon, the writers are pulling a clever trick in getting us to root for the latter time frame’s heroes while simultaneously recognizing the tragedy of Marie’s situation. We know this is the same guy, but the characters don’t, and so we’re powerless to do anything as we watch Marie become the centerpiece, argument, and largest reason why believing women who have claimed to be assaulted in the first place is such a crucial factor in catching despicable men like her assailant: it’s very possible, even more than likely, that there are more victims of these attackers out there beyond our present, and they never got justice for what happened to them.
One of the most common counter-arguments to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements by men less concerned with the safety of the women around them than with their own reputations is that given the wide embrace those movements have had, it’s largely possible that any woman could falsely accuse a man she doesn’t like of assault against her, and the world would bring him down at her behest without ever stopping to hear his side of the story. The fact of the matter is, even as it is widely known that that statistic makes up about 2-8% of all reported rapes (the same amount as most, if not all, other felonies), Unbelievable does a great service in how it depicts with crucial detail just how hard making a real report is in the first place; there’s so much involved, from the medical exams, to the police reports, to the written reports, to the days (even weeks) all of the information stays in processing, that the odds of a fake one happening are slim-to-none even if you account for the percentage mentioned above. So, yeah, believe the women in your life. Also, it’s a smaller thing at first, but one of the things the series also does incredibly well is refuse to make us sympathize with or make excuses for any of the cops responsible for Marie’s injustice or for her assailant.
The performances in the show are all top notch, with Toni Collette and Kaitlyn Dever both showcasing once again why they’re the real deal, the earlier of which getting the more fun parts of the dialogue, but the latter having to walk a thinner tightrope between emotionality and fear, the kind that only real trauma can cause. Dever is magnetic here, and at one point during the series’ last moments, a point comes where she makes a phone call, and that call moved me in such unexpected ways that I simply had to cry. I won’t spoil it for those of you who might go and check out the show, but suffice it to say, that is what the entire show builds to. The hunt for the rapist is interesting, tense, frustrating, and some of the very best kind of police procedural storytelling, but that’s not actually the series’ point; the phone call is, and if/when you see it, you’ll know exactly why.
Dever and Collette are obviously fantastic, and each brings out the best aspects of their respective characters so well, I genuinely bought that they were these people (seriously, put Collette in more detective stuff; she’s so good at this kind of thing), but special attention has to be paid to Merritt Wever, who imbues Detective Duvall with such a delicate vulnerability and soft-spoken protectiveness that seeing her go through outbursts (usually leveled at her co-workers) about how the lab procedures are too slow or watching her become defeated when she realizes that the guy she’s been looking at actually isn’t the one they’re looking for wrings your heart out, and you want nothing more than for her to get this win for herself and for the women she’s promised justice to. Wever is the standout of the entire show, partly by default since this is her first breakout hit series (no one watched Godless apparently), but also because her character and performance are given the most nuance within it. There are even points where she reveals that she is a woman of the Christian faith, but she doesn’t behave as if that’s all she is or that’s her entire purpose, which is an incredibly refreshing thing for such a mainstream show.
In terms of flaws, I wouldn’t say that the show actually has any that heavily affect the main story or any of its essential elements, although it is a bit weirdly edited, and the title card will often come up at really strange points that don’t quite feel the prior scenes were done yet and the scenes immediately afterward feel a bit jolting by comparison. The only story suggestion I actually would have had (which doesn’t end up mattering that much, so it’s fine) would have been to not show the small flashes of Marie’s assault at the beginning, thus challenging the audience to choose whether they believe her or not, and let that truth slowly be revealed as we come to know more in the 2011 timeline. We’re meant to feel pissed off that the cops would coerce her into saying she lied, and we are, but part of me wonders if it might have been more powerful to challenge the audience’s perception of the character’s story as well. Like I said, though, it doesn’t end up mattering as much to the overall point of the story in terms of what the series has to say, so I can live without it.
This might be the greatest original series Netflix has ever produced, and while that metric can certainly be challenged in terms of more objective quality (i.e. cinematography, editing, visuals, etc.), it’s untouchable when it comes to how helpful this series will be in educating the ignorant regarding rape, assault, and why these topics are such crucial ones to get right in the criminal justice system. When it comes to essential viewing, nothing on Netflix beats this, especially with a modern context. At once, Unbelievable is both an apology to those victims for whom justice has been lost, and a warning to those who would cost anyone justice ever again: believe the women, because the damage done by not believing them is too great a cost for them to be made to bear. There can be no concern for the life or reputation of any man who chooses to do this to any woman, and far too often, the ones exactly like the rapist in this show walk away with nary a scratch. Let this series piss you off, let it sadden you, let it inspire you; let it do whatever it has to do in order to shake people into action, and then let us go and act. To those justice has forgotten: I see you, and I am sorry. And to those still fighting for justice, whether it be against sexual abuse, domestic instability, the criminal justice system that was supposed to fight for you, or a mix of any or all three (and maybe more), I see you too, and I am with you.
I’m giving “Unbelievable” a 9.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.