Unbelievable is tough yet compelling viewing. The true crime series hinges on a case of rape that took place in the US in 2008, the appalling way it was handled and the hunt for the rapist. Steered by a terrific bunch of writers and directors, it’s a fleet-footed procedural that offers a sharp view of gender dynamics in the police force and deep-seated biases that are frustratingly hard to shake off.
Directors: Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Dinner, Susanah Grant
Writers: Susanah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, and Michael Cabon
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever, Toni Collette, Elizabeth Marvel
Seasons: 1 (2019)
The eight-part miniseries is based on ProPublica and The Marshall Project’s Pulitzer Prize-winning report titled An Unbelievable Story of Rape. Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a resident of Lynnwood, Washington reported that she had been raped in 2008. She was bound, blindfolded and gagged during the assault and the masked perpetrator took pictures of her. After the incident, Marie’s former foster mother insinuates to the investigating detective that she doubts Adler’s story because the girl isn’t reacting in the way a victim of rape is expect to behave. She’s too composed.
The show suggests that her impassiveness could be a defence mechanism engineered to cope with a tough life. She was abandoned by her birth mother, she met her father only once and lived in the foster care system, moving from one home to another. The detective puts the foster mother’s observation together with the inconsistencies in Marie’s statement taken multiple times and arrives at the conclusion that she’s making the whole thing up. Marie is pressured by detectives to report a false case. She’s sued for gross misdemeanor and filing a false report and charged $500 as fine.
In the second episode, we’re taken to 2011. Detective Karen Duval (Merritt Wever) at Golden Police Department in Colorado investigates a reported rape. Amber Stevens (Danielle Macdonald), an engineering student was raped in her apartment late one night. Amber recollects the incident with great detail as she sits in the detective’s car. Unlike the male detectives following Marie’s case, Duvall is empathetic and professional. In a conversation with her husband, also a detective, Duvall learns about another rape carried out with the same modus operandi. She then collaborates with Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) to investigate different victims of similar rapes. In each case, the perpetrator wears a ski mask, leaves no DNA at the crime scene and takes pictures of his victims before fleeing the scene. As they dig into the case, Marie tries to keep her life on track. Dever masterfully conveys the fragility of a victim, both of rape and a misogynistic system, as well as strength.
Both Wever and Collette are terrific. Duvall is both hard-nosed and deeply caring and Grace is unabashedly no-nonsense. Unlike the male detectives and even the foster mother, who approached Marie’s testimony wearing blinders, they understand the effects of trauma on memory and the complexities of investigating rape. It’s a tough case as they have little to go on. There are plenty of pensive silences throughout the gripping procedural as they chase false leads and hit dead-ends. Eventually, they find the guy. Marie is vindicated when they discover her pictures on a storage device in which he saves photos of his victims.