During one of the episodes in Netflix’s Unbelievable, Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), lashes out at a team member due to her frustration over a recent rape case. When describing how rape triggers more than a physical emotion, Duvall said, “This is not something people get over. This is something they carry with them forever like a bullet in the spine.”
Sexual assault is a tough subject matter to discuss, but what about witnessing a sexual assault and watching how the justice system failed an innocent victim? That notion is on full display in Unbelievable, which premiered on September 13. The pilot introduces Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), an 18-year old Washington resident who in 2008, reports that she has been raped and assaulted by a man at her apartment. While reporting the crime to Detective Parker (Eric Lange) and Detective Pruitt (Bill Fagerbakke), the audience gets to see quick, spine-tingling flashbacks of the rape.
However, Marie’s calm demeanor and small inconsistencies in her stories lead both the police and her former foster mothers to question the validity of the assault. As Marie relives the horrific trauma through constant questioning and badgering from the police, her crippling anxiety wins out as she’s coerced to admitting the rape was a lie she had made up. This causes the police to charge Marie with filing a false report and they drop the case entirely.
Netflix’s Unbelievable Trailer
Tragically, Unbelievable is inspired by the ProPublica and The Marshall Project’s report, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which chronicles the 2008-2011 Washington and Colorado serial rape cases. The Unbelievable pilot focuses on Marie’s story entirely as she tackles this awful situation practically alone. Marie has been in the foster-care system since she was 3 and struggles to trust those in power. Can you blame her? Dever’s performance is raw, emotional, and gut-wrenching. Dever is a star in the making after a tremendous year of performances in this series, which will lead to an Emmy nomination in 2020, as well as the film, Booksmart.
The pilot episode left me with tears in my eyes and I worried that seven more episodes of this would take a toll on my psyche. However, the series shifted to a parallel timeline in Colorado 2011, where we meet Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and the aforementioned Detective Duvall. Rasmussen and Duvall are from neighboring towns but are brought together after both detectives find similarities in their respective rape cases. When Duvall interviews one of her rape victims, Amber (Danielle Macdonald), it’s clear from the details of the attack that Amber’s assaulter is most likely the same criminal who attacked Marie.
The brash veteran persona of Rasmussen and the meek, religious persona of Duvall mesh perfectly to create a much-needed break from the horrors of Marie’s tragedy. The chemistry between Collette and Wever is magnetic. Collette and Wever are both Emmy winners that have been admired for years so having two stars at the top of their games only adds to the greatness of Unbelievable.
Essentially, Unbelievable becomes two shows-in-one. One portion of the episode is an upsetting and horror-filled view into Marie’s conflict. The other portion is a buddy cop drama that follows the entertaining duo of Rasmussen and Duvall as they attempt to catch their serial rapist. I found myself dreading Marie’s timeline as the pit in my stomach increased every time Marie struggled to get the help she so desperately needed. On the other hand, I internally cheered whenever Rasmussen and Duvall gained a step closer to catching the criminal. Thanks to Collette and Wever, the buddy cop scenes are so fun that for a few minutes, your spirits increase and feel hopeful that justice will finally prevail, which makes Marie’s saga that much more uncomfortable and heart-breaking.
When the two stories finally intersect towards the end, it’s impossible to not immediately think about how the police botched their initial assessment in Marie’s case. If Marie received the same care and dedication towards her case that Rasmussen and Duvall showed towards their victims, then maybe they would have caught Marie’s attacker and given her the justice she deserved.
Sexual assault is a difficult topic to portray onscreen. Instead of just focusing on the assault itself, Netflix’s Unbelievable successfully crafted a harrowing look into how sexual assault not only affects the victim but everyone around it. Collette, Wever, and most notably, Dever, all give superb performances that treat this subject matter with respect and professionalism. It may be tough to watch, but Unbelievable is an eye-opening experience and a masterclass in storytelling.
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