In 2008, a young woman named Marie reported that she had been tied up and raped repeatedly by an intruder in the night. Police responded, took her statement, and began an investigation. Over the course of the investigation, the detectives assigned to the case were unable to find much evidence, and leads were few and far between.
Marie told her boyfriend, as well as two of her previous foster mothers, about the attack. When their statements, as secondary witnesses, were taken by the police, the detectives noticed small inconsistencies in Marie’s account: how she untied herself, how she dialed the phone, etc… This began to call into question the veracity of her report. When Peggy, one of her foster mothers, expressed these same doubts to the police—citing Marie’s calm demeanor, her detached attitude, and her troubled upbringing—it seemed to everyone involved that perhaps Marie had fabricated the story. After all, she was under a lot of stress just starting to live on her own; she had done things for attention before; and maybe she just didn’t realize how far the whole thing would go.
The detectives brought Marie in for questioning again in an effort to get the truth out of her. After direct questioning, Marie told the two men that she might have dreamed it, but then that she was “pretty positive” it happened. Over the next few days, Marie changed her statement back and forth. ProPublica wrote the resulting story.
Netflix’s newest miniseries, Unbelievable, follows this story. Kaitlyn Dever stars as Marie, the focus of the series.
To say that the show is uncomfortable, upsetting, or potentially triggering is both obvious and an understatement. Just like many movies, television shows, books, or other forms of media that take a serious approach to a story of rape, Unbelievable is all of those words and more. And, to say that the show is “good” or “does a good job” sounds hollow and patronizing, considering the material.
Unbelievable portrays this extremely complex story honestly and well. The actors in the show all give extremely believable performances. Dever is at the top of her game, switching deftly between wearing her emotions on her sleeve and assuming a detached and remote frame of mind when it is clear that her character is too upset or confused to properly deal with her actual feelings. Even the secondary characters, such as the police detectives or other survivors, are nuanced and well-developed.
The writing and direction of the show, courtesy of Susannah Grant, play on the audience’s perceptions and preconceived notions. Over the course of the first episode, Marie’s story is called into question so many times that it’s hard not to ask oneself, “What is really going on here?” As a viewer, you can feel the frustration of the detectives, the confusion of her previous foster parents, and the pressure that Marie is under.
But just as quickly, Grant and Unbelievable lay bare how poorly Marie’s case was handled. The second episode shows a similar crime committed in a different police jurisdiction. Again, a young woman was raped in a similar manner and by a similar attacker. This time, however, Unbelievable shows us the same story as Marie, except everyone does their job well and treats the survivor with respect, compassion, and patience. A female detective quickly takes over the investigation, and the differences between these analogous scenes are absolutely staggering. The detective is extremely calm, patient, deliberate, and non-judgemental when speaking with the new young woman. The nurses who conduct the exam at the hospital treat her with kindness.
Clearly, this is done on purpose. But, with the knowledge that these two situations actually happened, it only underlines how utterly alone Marie must have felt. Instead of trust and a commitment to understanding, she was disbelieved by those closest to her and those whose job it is to help her. Unbelievable continues to lay out the investigation as it proceeds over the course of the next several years. It’s simply impressive that the show manages to reach its goal in presenting a story such as this so truthfully and understandably, even as it portrays extremely confusing events.
Featured Image by Netflix