Review: Unbelievable

Toni Collette and Merritt Wever in Unbelievable

Unbelievable begins with the rape of Marie (Kaitlyn Dever). Her case is mishandled by the police. Elsewhere, two cops played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette chase a serial rapist until the trail leads them to Marie. This outstanding series is based on a real case.

Kaitlyn Dever in Unbelievable
Kaitlyn Dever is excellent as the traumatized and bewildered Marie

Be warned, it is very difficult to watch the first episode. Not because of the rape scenes, which were brief and impressionistic. (Even so, they could be triggering.) The way Marie was treated by the police made it hard to watch.

After Marie was raped, her story was dismissed as false by male investigators.

Kaitlyn Dever in Unbelievable

The cops took Marie, a traumatized young woman of 18, into the station and questioned her over and over. She sat in front of them, all alone, tears streaming down her face. They looked for inconsistencies in her story. They made her write it out several times. Finally they suggested to her that she made it all up for the attention. She said she had so they would let her go home. She would have agreed to anything to get away from the police.

Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) enters the story to investigate a different rape in episode 2. It makes plowing through the first episode worth it. A female officer could have made a world of difference to Marie. Karen Duvall proves it again and again throughout the remaining episodes.

Merritt Wever and Danielle Macdonald in Unbelievable
Danielle Macdonald plays the first rape victim Karen investigates

Karen is an empathetic investigator. She believes the victim, she listens, she lets the victim tell the story her own way without pushing. She’s kind. She’s everything the two male cops in the first episode were not. The victim can trust her rather than be afraid of her. It enables getting to the truth.

Merritt Wever is simply outstanding in this role. I think it’s her best work. She owns this series. She deserves an Emmy. If you’re a regular reader you know I often blather on about how much I love Toni Collette, and she is definitely in top form here. But this one is Merritt Wever’s all the way.

Karen describes the MO of the rapist to her husband Max (Austin Hébert). He is a cop in a nearby town in Colorado. It reminds him of a case ongoing under Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) in his district.

They find similarities in two rape cases in their two jurisdictions. They begin searching and find more cases. There’s no evidence in any of the cases. But the MO is consistent.

In the episodes that follow Karen begins to work with Grace in a multi-district group, which includes the FBI. Grace is a bit more cynical than Karen, a bit more abrupt, even so she understands what a rape victim needs far better than a male officer.

Unbelievable is suspenseful, emotional, maddening, and brilliantly told.

The guy completely covers his tracks. It’s painstaking, frustrating police work to get even the smallest lead. The rapist seems to have read the police handbook on collecting forensic evidence after a rape. He knows exactly what to do.

There is a strong thread in the investigation about how the rapist might be a cop because police departments are home to a percentage of violent men, ex-miltary, known perpetrators of domestic violence. A cop would know how to cover his tracks.

Karen and Grace are in Colorado. Marie is in Washington state. The police in Washington actually charge Marie with false accusations and she pleads guilty. She is sentenced to a year on probation and fined $500. Her story goes public and she loses her friends, her job, her apartment. All this while she is suffering from the trauma of being raped. It’s blow after blow after blow for her.

The way police databases are organized does not help find rapists. The search was long and fascinating. Unbelievable is one of the most interesting police procedural stories I’ve seen, simply because the task was so difficult. The team working with Karen and Grace finally get some solid clues. After extraordinary effort, they arrest a suspect.

They search the suspect’s home and find all the evidence they need to convict him. They find images he took of some 30 of his victims. One set of images is a young woman from Washington state named Marie. The story turns full circle in the final episode.

Marie’s story has a “happy” ending. She’s finally believed. Her reputation is restored. She sues the city for damages and receives a settlement. But no rape victim ever truly recovers. The damage done by this one man was enormous – and the police suspect there are even more victims of his they don’t know about.

The Facts Behind Unbelievable

The series is based on reporting described in An Unbelievable Story of Rape at the Marshall Project.

In an interview at Metro, creator-director Susannah Grant was asked if the two detectives in the case were real. She said, “They are not real, but they are inspired by actual people and the details of what they went through to apprehend this guy and solve this case – those details are very close to reality. We tried to stick as close to the facts of that as possible just because they were so determined and I had such respect for the integrity that they brought to their work – it didn’t need embellishment. But we did preserve their privacy, we changed their names and we dramatized the personal and inner lives of them, so that may or may not have anything to do with the real-life people.”

Grant also commented that rape is a crime that is reported only about 5 to 20% of the time it’s perpetrated, and out of those cases, only 5% are prosecuted.

Clearly, the rapists in this country are going largely scot-free.

#MeToo

There are many men, many rapists, still doing damage every day. The way those cases are handled needs to be revolutionized. That’s the goal of #MeToo activists and should be the goal of every American.

Toni Collette in Unbelievable
Determined cops who understood the problem on a personal level made the difference

Unbelievable creators Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon, and Ayelet Waldman couldn’t have picked a better time and a better set of real characters to tell about right now. In the hands of these skilled writers, a compelling story evolves. It isn’t all grim – there are moments of humor, of grace, of love, of pain, of joy. Everything is here.

Unbelievable takes all the headlines about unprocessed rape kits and women who “lie” about being raped and men who get away with sexual assault and shows you how it happens. It shows you how a patriarchal system infects even the men who actually want to do the right thing. It shows you how a patriarchal system damages women and devalues women’s lives. It shows you the ways in which women’s lives are destroyed by sexual violence.

This series is suspenseful, emotional, maddening, and brilliantly told. Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Dinner, and Susannah Grant shared the directing. It’s one of the most powerful and moving works I’ve ever seen.

I absolutely recommend that everyone watch Unbelievable.

poster for Unbelievable

Watch the Trailer

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2 thoughts on “Review: Unbelievable”

  1. I have watched the miniseries. I agree with your review. This series is great. Why?

    The script is well-written and the actors play their roles well. The story is captivating, dramatic and often highly emotional. In addition, it is based on a true story.

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