Review of Unbelievable
By Julia Peterson
It’s hard to trust a television show to treat a true crime story with sensitivity, respect, and dignity. It’s also hard to trust a television show to portray sexual assault in a thoughtful and non-exploitative way. Unbelievable, an 8-episode limited series on Netflix, is exceptional in its commitment to meeting and exceeding both these benchmarks. It is not easy viewing – not by a long shot. It is a show that I have a difficult time recommending, not for any of its flaws or faults, but simply because of how vividly it created moments of rage and terror in me as I was watching. It is a whole lot of emotion to foist on someone else.
When I happened upon a trailer for Unbelievable this summer, I was floored when I realized what the show was going to be about. As the names and plot points hit me with increasing familiarity, I remembered that, four years ago, I read an article co-published by ProPublica and The Marshall Project titled “An unbelievable story of rape.” The article was about a young woman, “Marie,” who was raped by a stranger in her apartment. Local police mishandled her case, accused her of lying about what happened that night, and pressured her into recanting her original statement. She was then charged with the crime of making a false report. Her friends abandoned her, she lost her housing and quit her job, and was put on probation – all because the police decided not to believe her. Meanwhile, police departments in other jurisdictions had begun working together to investigate a string of sexual assaults that all bore striking similarities to one another, and to what happened to Marie. The article was harrowing, detailed, and over 12,000 words long. I could not imagine how the story would be adapted for the screen.
When I started watching Unbelievable, I found that – to their credit – the creative team were fastidious about sticking close to the details of the original article. This was absolutely necessary to avoid trivializing or sensationalizing the true stories and real lives of the people involved, and my fears that the story might be modified to make it more “watchable,” at least in a narrative sense, turned out to be unfounded. Having read the source material, I can say that the show often seemed much more like an entirely reenacted documentary than it did a regular television show. The narrative sometimes jumped around, but it never strayed too far from a logical path.
The casting was also spot-on. Kaitlyn Dever in particular is perfect as Marie; she embodies the young woman as vulnerable, world-weary – grown-up and immature all at once – bringing obvious compassion to the role. Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, who play the detectives who link their investigations and eventually solve the case, deliver every scene with passion and single-minded drive. The moment when the detective from Marie’s original case, played by Eric Lange, realizes how badly he has wronged her is a scene of utter anguish that will stay with me for a long time.
One scene that, for me, embodies the very best of Unbelievable comes relatively early on when Marie returns to the police station after having walked back her first statement to try to set the record straight. To prove her honesty, she even agrees to take a polygraph test. However, since the detectives have already decided that she is a liar and not a victim, they say that she can take the test, but if she fails, she will be arrested and imprisoned for making a false report. Marie, understandably, does not take that risk. For someone who doesn’t know much about polygraph tests, the detectives’ behavior in that scene would come across as threatening and coercive. For someone who does know about how polygraphs work, how often they fail, how they can be flummoxed by ordinary physical reactions, how the results of these tests are not even admissible as evidence in court – it is maddening.
Of course, the show is imperfect, and a few flaws do stand out. For one, there is some really hokey dialogue as the writers try to cram in detailed explanations of police systems and procedures while still nominally advancing plot and character. Having watched “Chernobyl” earlier this summer, I was struck by how that show managed to explain the basics of how a nuclear reactor works without ever resorting to a wink and nod, while Unbelievable depended on characters repeatedly telling each other “as you know” to explain police databases.
My other main issue with Unbelievable is in the framing. In the first episode, as Marie is describing what happened to her, the show cuts to a shot of her masked assailant. Besides functioning as, essentially, a jump scare – which I never like, and particularly not in a true story that does not need help to be scary – it also gives the viewer concrete proof that the assault actually happened. These flashbacks happen frequently throughout the show, and while they are never graphic, they do serve as a constant reminder that Marie is telling the truth. I think this lets the audience off the hook. When we know that Marie isn’t lying, it is easy to say that we would never have doubted her for a moment. If all we had to go on was her word, how many viewers could sit comfortably with all their judgments as the show progressed and new evidence came to light? I wish the show had dared to point the finger right through the fourth wall.
Unbelievable has scenes that are clearly crafted to speak to specific audiences – police officers, parents and mentors, youth workers, college students, and survivors, among others – but I am comforted to know that one audience member in particular had a positive experience with it. The real-life Marie, speaking to one of the co-authors of the original article earlier this week, called it “excellent.”