Unbelievable review: finally, a true crime drama that takes sexual assault seriously

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Toni Collette and Merritt Wever star in Unbelievable
Toni Collette and Merritt Wever star in Unbelievable Credit: Netflix

The first hour of Unbelievable, Netflix’s new American drama miniseries, is some of the most brutal television I’ve ever watched. It features absolutely no violence, and the rape that the episode frequently flashes back to is shown without feeling gratuitous or exploitative, but it was still so powerful and bleak that it left me reeling.

While the rest of the series lacks that gut-punch of the first episode, it lays bare how we are failing victims of sexual violence in stark, and shaming, clarity. 

Unbelievable is about foster teenager Marie Adler, played by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever, and what happens to her after she is raped by a masked intruder.

The series is being promoted heavily on the back of Toni Collette’s involvement, but she doesn’t even appear in the first hour: instead we follow Marie in the aftermath of her rape, from the moment she starts to interact with a justice system designed to protect her.

First, she has to go through what happened to the police – a constable, then a detective. Then there’s hours of invasive hospital procedures, and having to go through it again to a doctor. Then she has to go to the police station and relive it to the detective again. And then, despite having gone through hell 12 hours earlier and made to relive it four times already, she’s asked to write it down. 

When, at this point, she complains of a headache, the detective rolls his eyes like she's being a nuisance. And suddenly, because she's not acting in the "right" way for a rape victim, everyone starts to doubt her. Her foster mothers go to the police and say she may be making it up for attention.

The police bully her into saying she lied because there are gaps in her story and her memory isn't perfect. The counsellors in her housing complex for at-risk kids shame her into going back and telling the police the rape did really happen, and when the police again bully her into saying it never happened they get all of Marie's friends to sit in a circle with her and tell her how much they despise her for lying. It's truly harrowing viewing, and all the time Marie is desperately, heartbreakingly alone.

If it sounds far-fetched, like something someone with an anti-police agenda would make up as nightmare-fulfilment, it’s not. Unbelievable is based on a true story, that of 18-year-old woman in Washington who was charged with a gross misdemeanor for reporting being raped at knifepoint and later retracting her story, losing everyone and everything she had in the process.

Her story was actually uncovered by two journalists: T Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project were researching false rape allegations when they found Marie's story, and were utterly horrified by it – particularly by the interviews she’d had with police, the reasons for her changing her story, and the way she had been not only abandoned by the justice system, but actively punished by it.

Kaitlyn Dever as rape victim Marie Adler Credit: Netflix

The story they wrote about it, An Unbelievable Story of Rape, ended up covering multiple sexual attacks by a serial rapist. The investigation spanned two years and multiple police forces, and it was only when the two female detectives in charge caught the perpetrator that Marie was able to get any kind of justice for the pain caused to her by both her rapist and the police. 

The story won a Pulitzer Prize and became the subject of a wildly popular This American Life episode. It went viral online because of how wild and shocking it was: it's almost too gripping and bleakly entertaining to be true. Unfortunately, it was Marie's life for several years – and once you know that fact, it's impossible to not have it floating in the back of your mind as you watch Unbelievable. As horrible as the show is anyway, knowing that it’s all real makes it 100 times moreso. 

After the first episode, Unbelievable flips between following Marie’s life in 2008, as she is charged with making a false report, and following Detectives Grace Rasmussen (Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) as they investigate a serial rapist in 2011.

The difference between how they talk to the victims and how Marie was dealt with is stark: when the victims are fuzzy on the details – as you would be after such a traumatic event! – they reassure them that it's okay. When the stories don't make sense or seem, well, unbelievable, they believe them anyway. And all the time they’re angry, angry that no-one else seems to believe or care what’s happening to the women who are being assaulted and angry at the powerlessness they feel to protect them.

Merritt Wever as Detective Karen Duvall Credit: Netflix

Unbelievable deals with complex, thorny issues in a remarkable considered way. It's blunt and frank about rape without sensationalising it, and focuses very much on the victims and their feelings rather than relying on the shock value and pain-porn. It also looks at why the system is so broken without falling back on the idea of “man bad; woman good”: Detectives Rasmussen and Duvall certainly aren’t perfect, and although the male officers who dealt with Marie were terrible, they're shown to be people who are trying their best but have had blind spots instilled in them by a broken system.

The dialogue can be clunky sometimes – too many instances of statistics being unnaturally shoved into conversations between colleagues, or the problems of the justice system being told rather than shown – but the actors do a marvellous job with it. Collette gets to charge around shouting and swearing, which looks like the most fun role of the main three, but it’s Wever’s restrained fury and Dever’s masterful performance of an abused teenager who is somehow but tough and painfully vulnerable that really steal the show. 

True crime is very much du jour, and I imagine a lot of true crime fans will watch Unbelievable because of it – which is fine, obviously, but I hope it goes beyond that. 

Unbelievable isn’t just a gripping story, it’s an incredibly compelling argument for why we need to take a frank look at the way victims of sexual assault are treated and how seriously we take them. The real-life Marie got justice, but there are thousands of people out there who don’t. If anything, Unbelievable shows just why we need to take them seriously. 

Unbelievable will begin streaming on Netflix from September 13