Unbelievable review: Netflix's true crime drama is an essential and important watch in the #MeToo era
Unbelievable's most vital contribution isn’t in highlighting systemic failures (although it does a good job of it); it is in addressing our beliefs about how rape survivors should act/behave/feel, and in skewering how we re-traumatise those who have already lived through an assault.
The following post contains a detailed discussion of the Netflix series Unbelievable.
Not able to be believed; unlikely to be true.
“Unbelievable or not, it happened.”
Synonyms: incredible, beyond belief, difficult to believe, scarcely credible, inconceivable, unthinkable, unimaginable; More
So great or extreme as to be difficult to believe; extraordinary.
“Your audacity is unbelievable.”
Unbelievable — the Netflix series by Erin Brokovich writer Susannah Grant that released on 13 September — brings to mind both meanings of the word.
The account of Marie, a teen who reports that she has been raped, is considered ‘unbelievable’ by the police, and even those closest to her. They cite the lack of evidence, “inconsistencies” in Marie's story, and her troubled past — all to support their view that her story of rape cannot be believed. They assert that Marie is lying.
The sheer callousness of the police in investigating Marie’s assault, their ineptitude, that too is ‘unbelievable’.
And perhaps most ‘unbelievable’ of all is Marie’s vindication when her rape is revealed to be — through the work of other, more conscientious and thorough police detectives — one among a series of assaults by the same perpetrator.
Unbelievable is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning 2015 investigative report by The Marshall Project and ProPublica, titled ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’.
How the report came to be filed deserves little going into: journalists T Christian Miller (ProPublica) and Ken Armstrong (The Marshall Project) were independently following their own leads, when they realised they were on the trail of the same story. Miller had been looking at how two police detectives (Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot) from different jurisdictions in Denver, Colorado, teamed up to hunt down a serial rapist, while Armstrong had been tracking the case of Marie, a young woman sued by the police for filing a false report of rape — only for it to be later established that she had been telling the truth all along.
Putting aside the journalistic urge for a ‘scoop’, Miller and Armstrong knew that it was more important that this story of a gross miscarriage of justice be reported in the best possible way and reach the most possible readers, so their respective organisations — ProPublica and The Marshall Project — published their findings jointly. The report was later expanded into a book (A False Report: A True Story of Rape In America), and also made into a short, two-part podcast (Anatomy Of Doubt) broadcast on This American Life.
‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’ is an example of what good, collaborative journalism can achieve, just like one of the two police investigations it focuses on. Here’s a brief summary of the report:
Marie, a Lynwood (Washington) teen who had been in and out of foster homes since the age of three, was finally tasting independence at the age of 18. She had moved into an apartment of her own and was working at a department store, as part of a guided programme that helped individuals like her transition to adult life. But one early morning in 2009, Marie awoke to find a masked intruder in her bedroom. He threatened her with a knife; gagged, blindfolded and bound her; then raped her. He also took photos of her, threatening to post them online if she called the cops.
Marie did call the cops, and the foster mother (Peggy) with whom she had lived for two years until recently moving out. The police asked her the same questions about the sequence of events leading to, during and following her assault, repeatedly. There was little physical evidence on the scene — the rapist had been careful. But Peggy (and later, one of Marie's other former foster mothers, Shannon) had doubts about Marie’s story; her demeanour was too detached, and she had a history of engaging in attention-seeking behaviour. Could this be another of her attempts to gain attention?
Peggy communicated her thoughts to the police officers investigating Marie's case. From then on, their focus shifted. Instead of further examining the evidence they had managed to collect from the scene, they brought Marie in for questioning, honing in on supposed inconsistencies in the testimony she had provided them, and bullying her to ‘admit’ that she had lied about the assault. Feeling cornered and still traumatised, Marie agreed.
But that wasn’t the half of it: Her statement was leaked to the press. Marie was hounded by reporters, shunned by friends and classmates, and was charged for false reporting by the police — an occurrence so rare that not only Marie's court appointed lawyer, but also cops from other jurisdictions, were surprised when they found out about it.
Two years later, a police detective from Golden (in Denver, Colorado) — Stacy Galbraith — was discussing a rape case she was investigating, when her husband (also a police officer) told her that it sounded remarkably similar to a report filed in his jurisdiction a couple of months ago. Galbraith reached out to the detective on that case — Edna Hendershot — and they realised that they were possibly looking at the same assailant.
Diligent and painstaking police work uncovered more assaults in other districts that could have been the work of the same rapist. When they finally solved the case and arrested the man, among the other evidence they uncovered, were photographs of all his victims. And among those photos were several of a young woman who neither Galbraith nor Hendershot had come across in their investigations, but could be identified by the learner's permit that the rapist had placed on her chest: Her name was Marie.
I haven't read Miller and Armstrong’s book, but their original report is the iteration of this story that has remained with me. Maybe because it told the story first. But also because it has a certain immediacy that the This American Life podcast and even Netflix’s Unbelievable don’t. There are few writerly flourishes, and the framing of the narrative, while deliberate, also feels natural. The bare bones of the story are enough. It is after all, that kind of story.
While Miller and Armstrong’s report was presented as a study in contrasts of two police investigations (and the stellar cops who headed them), the podcast looked at how the wider community — the very people Marie should have been able to count on — let her down. It doesn’t let the investigating officers in Marie’s case off the hook, but indicts a whole other bunch of people too: everyone who hounded Marie, the counsellors of the programme Marie was enrolled in, Peggy (despite all her good intentions and reasons for disbelieving Marie’s account).
The Netflix series incorporates these elements while adding a few layers of its own too. It’s a police procedural, but it’s also a commentary on attitudes towards survivors of rape. It is a buddy cop story and a crime drama. Some of these elements work better than others, and not all of them work all of the time.
The Netflix series brings together some incredible performers, in a cast that includes Kaitlyn Dever (as Marie), Merritt Wever (as Karen Duvall, the screen version of Stacy Galbraith) and Toni Collette (Grace Rasmussen, an avatar of Edna Hendershot). Wever plays Karen with an empathy and earnestness that in no way detracts from just how sharp a cop she is, while Collette’s Rasmussen is brash, non-nonsense and extremely driven. Dever perfectly embodies Marie’s fragility and isolation, her tenuous-yet-ultimately-tenacious brand of self-reliance. (There's a scene in which Marie explains to her court-appointed therapist, what is required to survive a zombie apocalypse, that serves as a heartrending articulation of her own lessons in counting on no one but herself.) Danielle Macdonald has a significant and particularly poignant role as Amber, the woman whose assault Karen Duvall is first called in to investigate.
Unbelievable is eight episodes long (each clocking in at about an hour) and follows a structure similar to Miller and Armstrong’s original report. We start with Marie and the backlash to her case before going on to the happenings in Denver. The story continues to depict how Marie's life has unravelled in the time since her assault even as we follow the twists and turns of Karen and Grace's investigation. At least a couple of those episodes could possibly have been done away with.
Screenplays and TV series have dramatic requirements that journalistic reports do not, but the dead ends/red herrings that Karen and Grace spend time pursuing seem here to be included for little other reason than adding to the narrative tension. (I am not aware if these were leads explored by Galbraith and Hendershot in their investigation.) Even their initially gruff relationship — Karen’s need for approval from Grace and the latter’s somewhat offhand treatment of her — may have been added in for the drama. The equation doesn’t really seem to follow Galbraith and Hendershot’s, going by Miller and Armstrong’s original report, so one wonders if it was presented it in this way to hew more closely to the formula of buddy cop capers.
Some of the dialogue — Karen getting her team to speed up their work by delivering a monologue about the devastating and indelible impact of rape on those who experience it, for instance — can feel heavy-handed. (The show itself does a much better job of this when a woman — one among those targeted by the rapist — speaks up at his sentencing to describe how her life has changed, become so much smaller after the attack, as she has ceased to do anything she thought might have been the activity that brought her to his attention as his next victim: whether it’s gardening, or sitting by her window, or even following a routine.)
Unbelievable gets many things right as well. The juxtaposition of Karen’s manner of asking Amber to tell her as much as she remembers about her assault with Marie’s relentless questioning by the cops is a gentle lesson in the right way to treat a survivor of a horrendous attack. Just the difference in attitude — in not putting the victim/survivor on trial — is a simple measure that achieves so much. There are references to police lapses in investigating rapes, and the pervasiveness of violence against women (even among those sworn to uphold the law) is underscored. And like the report it is based on, the series demonstrates the Damocles' sword of 'false allegations' that hangs over the heads of those who step forward to report rape.
Unbelievable works best when it highlights the courage of women: whether it is Grace, Karen and their teams, or Marie, or any of the other survivors who come forward to report their rapes. Their strength is incredibly inspiring, and you may well find yourself bawling as you see their determination to move past what has been done to them.
Unbelievable would have been an important and un-missable watch at any time but in the post #MeToo era, its significance cannot be overstated. Its most vital contribution isn’t in highlighting systemic failures (although it does a good job of it); it is in addressing our beliefs about how rape survivors should act/behave/feel, and in skewering how we re-traumatise those who have already lived through an assault.
Unbelievable is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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