REVIEW: “Giving voice to the victim” – Unbelievable (2019)

“A stifling retelling of a story that should have never been thought to be a lie.”


This article contains spoilers for Unbelievable.

Raw and revealing, Unbelievable is the slow story of a series of rapes crawling out of the woodwork of Washington and Colorado from 2008 to 2011. Covering the same subject matter as what is simply being called “the ProPublica article”, as well as the hour-long podcast episode from This American Life, the new Netflix limited series brings tears to the eyes. Laid bare on the surface, Unbelievable is blunt, almost blatant, in its arrival to a certain truth: there is a very tangible problem currently existing within America’s criminal justice system. It is not so much a problem with incompetence. In fact, the law takes strides to prove just how propellant it is towards the notion of thoroughness. No, it is a problem with suspicion. What is supposedly structured to be a safe house for irrevocable truth is thinly veiled, disguising a site where narratives on sexual assaults go to be twisted, to die, wrung out until the teller is dry. Unforgiving interrogation forgoes the time it takes a victim to excruciatingly process what has just happened to them. Rather than stomach it at their own pace, they are forced to relive it over and over and over again.

There is a girl out there that knows what this is like. To us, she is Marie Adler, former foster child from Lynnwood, Washington, finding herself at odds with a reality shown to her too soon. Marie (killer performer Kaitlyn Dever) watches the world she thought she understood so well dissolve into nothingness the day after she is raped. The second she senses the onset of doubt issue itself from not only the police, but the people closest to her, too, it is over before it has ever even begun. The call, the investigation, and the interrogation are mere agents in prolonging the inevitable. That is, there is no justice brought by the officers for Marie. They take one look at her small, confused, scared self and still push her to what is thought of as the right answer. They stare at her past, all compressed into a report that is detached from any emotion whatsoever. They feed off the pure hesitance from her foster mothers, insinuating and insisting on a lot that isn’t really there. At the end of the day, Marie is left with nothing if not ill-placed regret. If there is anything apart from that, there is a criminal citation, and nothing more.

False reporting. That is what the file on her rape is labelled with when it is pulled back out of Lynnwood’s records. It is two and a half years later in Golden, Colorado, when Detectives Karen Duvall (soft-spoken Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (hard-edged Toni Collette) click through one last hard drive and, to their dismay, find themselves confronted with the fact that they do not recognize the final face in front of them on the computer screen. Fortunately, what they have of her is enough. A careful placing of a license that was originally meant to hinder a confession from Marie helps Karen and Grace instead. Before all this, though, were twin ongoing investigations pursuing the same culprit, separate until it almost seemed as though they conjoined to each other. Karen rattles off the details of her latest case to her husband in her home. Grace hears her own case recited back to her by Karen in her car. Their victims — Amber (Danielle Macdonald) and Sarah (Vanessa Bell Calloway), respectively — have startlingly similar stories. After they decide to unite their cases, it feels like a runaway victory. They not only solve the case, though. The two of them confuse, tire, frustrate themselves over it. Their anger, whenever it reveals itself, is righteous.

They get mad for the girls when no one else will. They believe them when no one else will.

When Grace gets a hold of these records and witnesses for herself an unforgivable wrongdoing, Marie is a little older and getting by a little better in life. She makes peace with herself. Karen and Grace make peace with themselves as well. Trauma does not and never will look the same on different people. Some victims have to compartmentalize information to maintain a steady mind. Some victims have to show conviction to stay strong. Other victims, though, only curl in on themselves, wishing the world away from their aching head and for a sense of normalcy to return in any way it can. Displays of trauma are indisputable. Unbelievable makes a point to get just as much across. Its execution in that endeavor is impeccable, standing in indignation against what it presents on-screen. Dever, Wever, and Collette deliver performances that solidify what is already a compelling story, worthy of Emmys. For distrust to show itself where it should not is reprehensible. Nothing should have to be earned in this instance. Nothing.

Unbelievable was released on September 13 and has since been available to stream on Netflix.