Unbelievable review: an insightful masterpiece from Netflix
Based on a true story, Unbelievable is an unflinching look at injustice in America and how we're failing survivors of sexual assault.
Warning: contains light spoilers for Unbelievable, which is available to stream on Netflix now.
We’ve all heard the argument, and some of us have even made it: we can’t just believe women. Certainly not all of them. What about all those poor guys who are falsely accused? Most of us know someone who knows someone who knows someone who was accused of something he definitely didn’t do, right? And up until a couple of years ago, if someone we knew had been raped or sexually assaulted, most of us didn’t even know it.
Netflix’s Unbelievable, a dramatised version of an all-too-real story, presents the stomach-churning truth behind someone who was counted among those women who lied about being raped. It’s also the story of the people who, years later, found undeniable proof of her rape. For several years, Marie (her middle name) was wrongly included in the nationwide 2-10% of false charges of rape or sexual assault, which is in line with other violent crimes. More akin to the social justice of The Keepers than the cackling humour, easy mass media consumption, or sloppy research of other crime related media, this eight-episode limited series is not the true crime we’re used to, but it might just be what we need to see right now.
It starts with the story of Marie (played a captivating Kaitlyn Dever of Booksmart), the young woman highlighted in a groundbreaking 2015 longform article from The Marshall Project. Unbelievable adapts that article here with a high degree of precision and accuracy, chronicling the reality of a woman who is raped in her own home, coerced into rescinding her statement, and then charged with making a false statement to the police. In parallel, we watch two detectives (Toni Colette and Merritt Weaver, both on excellent form) as they follow their instincts to piece together scant evidence in pursuit of what they start to believe might be a serial rapist.
Unlike in so much of our media, the women of Unbelievable are alive and entirely human, hurting but capable of healing. They experience (unnamed) primary and secondary trauma symptoms right in front of our eyes, the approximately 40-minute episodes showing the assaults themselves only in stilted glimpses of flashbacks, focusing instead on the too-often-ignored aftermath. PTSD symptoms are translated to screen astutely, like the high-pitched noise signalling a flashback or potential panic attack. So much of it, though, comes from the varied and stirring performances from Kaitlyn Dever, Danielle MacDonald, Analeigh Ashford and Jayne Taini showing everything from numbed out feelings that confound the expectations of others to coping with drugs, sex, or alcohol, or making their lives small in an attempt to avoid danger. That Dever carries a series populated with Toni Colette, Merritt Weaver and Dale Dickey is no small feat.
Unbelievable isn’t preachy or expository; it doesn’t even feel angry, opting to “write hot things cold” as it were. Instead, it trusts the viewer to see the difference between how Marie is treated by male cops, an overly busy foster mother, and a legal system that makes no effort to support or understand her, versus how another survivor (Danielle MacDonald, Dumplin’) is ushered with care through the same process by Merritt Weaver’s Detective Karen Duvall. Unbelievable shows a far more realistic and detailed depiction of a forensic medical exam (commonly called a “rape kit”) than perhaps we’ve ever seen in pop culture, and that alone is a public service.
The script does allow for moments of frustration and anger, mostly from Colette’s seasoned Detective Rasmussen, who’s clearly sick of seeing “rapists get probation.” As their frustration (and the evidence) mount, both detectives invoke the disturbingly high rates of law enforcement officers committing violence against women, from stalking to domestic violence and sexual assault. These facts are known in the recovery and prevention communities and the data is public, but it’s still incredibly rare to hear it referenced in pop culture, on the news, or anywhere else in the mainstream discourse. There’s no way to tell this story without holding up huge flaws of our policing and legal systems, but Unbelievable stays true to the issue at hand and doesn’t pull any punches, when other creators might have been tempted to throw the boys in blue a lifeline.
Unbelievable handles the material with respect, but the fact of the matter is that it’s triggering as hell, so here’s a bit of service journalism for those in need of content warnings. If you’d rather know as little as possible, feel free to skip this paragraph and the next one. The series avoids any of the usual tropes like sexualising the assaults or filming them from the perpetrator’s perspective, but the rapes are still shown throughout. The series frontloads the graphic imagery, with the most in the first episode, which focuses on the assault of Marie, a little less in the second episode, and third having no imagery at all, since the survivor only remembered sounds.
That’s not to say the rest of the series isn’t triggering – as Marie and Unbelievable make a point of saying (though Marie can’t articulate it yet), people can be triggered by all kinds of things. I found myself seething more in later episodes when people who created injustice in Marie’s life gaslit and blamed her for the circumstances. It’s also notable that in the seventh episode we see the perpetrator for an extended period of time, including with full frontal nudity, and in the final episode, we briefly see him justifying his own behaviour.
It seems like it would be impossible for someone to come away from Unbelievable without a deep well of empathy for survivors, grave concern in police procedure for crimes involving sexual violence, and mistrust in the way our legal system interacts with survivors and perpetrators. Anchored by three quiet but powerful performances, particularly Kaitlyn Dever’s systematically overruled Marie who so often expresses herself in silence, Unbelievable centers the human toll of these blights on our national character and the resilience of individual women fighting back in whatever way they know how.
For support and information for victims of sexual assault, please visit this NHS page and see this list of links from Mind.org.