The actual history behind the Netflix miniseries ‘Unbelievable’ is a near-perfect example of the Faustian bargain at the heart of true-crime storytelling. It’s horrifying and in equal measure exciting, in a way that is likely to leave you both appalled and satisfied by the end.
The story, involving a series of rapes in Washington and Colorado from 2008 to 2011, was told by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project in a 2015 article that won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. So it’s not surprising that the creators of ‘Unbelievable’ — Susannah Grant, the ‘Erin Brockovich’ screenwriter, and the married novelists Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman — have used it as a template for their fictional telling.
‘Unbelievable’ adopts the two-track structure of the original article, moving back and forth between the sad and enraging story of Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) — a Washington 18-year-old who, under pressure from the police, recants her report of being raped — and a pulsing account of an investigation into a series of sexual assaults three years later in Colorado.
The links among the Colorado cases are discovered through stranger-than-fiction luck and the dogged work of two female detectives played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette. We can see that the new attacks are connected to the rape of Marie (and therefore absorb the implicit lesson that solving her case would have prevented them) and spend the series’ eight episodes in anticipation that someone on-screen will see it too.
It’s a pretty foolproof structure, and in the practised hands of Grant, Waldman and Chabon (working with the directors Lisa Cholodenko and Michael Dinner), it easily carries ‘Unbelievable’. As a mystery, the series is taut and engrossing, and its multiple denouements play out with a judicious mix of celebration and regret.
Of course, the same was true of the original article, which at 12,000 words can be read in considerably less time than it takes to watch the series. And in expanding and dramatising the story, not every choice is equally successful.
When it came to the larger issues illuminated by Marie’s case — the failure to believe a rape victim’s account, the underrepresentation of women among detectives investigating rapes — Armstrong and Miller (who receive producing credits on the series) mostly let the events speak for themselves. ‘Unbelievable’ stays close to the reserved tone of the article, but it appears to be less confident that the viewer will get the lessons about justice and equality — every so often putting a speech about them into a character’s mouth just to be sure. You could take this underlining as a validation of the show’s importance, but it saps the drama.
The show also has to expand on the characterisations of Marie and the two detectives, here called Grace Rasmussen (Collette) and Karen Duvall (Wever), a process that has mixed results.
Marie, a veteran of foster homes who maintains forward momentum through the most discouraging events — after being raped, she’s shunned for supposedly having lied and slapped with a criminal charge for making a false report — was more fully realised in the original article, though she remains a complex and intriguing character, played with a kind of hard-nosed delicacy by Dever. (She was the pugnacious Loretta McCready in ‘Justified’.)
Rasmussen and Duvall have had more back story imposed on them: a secondary theme of female mentorship that, again, is appropriate to the show’s overall concerns but doesn’t add much besides easy sentimentality to the dramatic stakes. And in service of the theme, the character of the older detective, Rasmussen, exhibits a mix of veteran professionalism and an angry desire to bend the rules that doesn’t quite add up.
You can get past some inconsistencies and superfluous piety, though, on the sheer pull of the story and on the overall strength of the performances. Collette and Wever, two of the best actresses around, are great together; Collette’s molten but tightly controlled emotion bounces off Wever’s equally expressive reserve.
Throughout the series, terrific performers appear and reappear in smaller roles: Annaleigh Ashford and Danielle Macdonald as rape victims; Nick Searcy as an exasperated cop; and Bridget Everett and Brent Sexton as Marie’s former foster parents.
And for every routine or sentimental moment, there’s a scene that rises to the occasion. Most of the best moments are simple, like Duvall’s pensive reactions to new information: shock or grief or excitement silently written on Wever’s face. The story tells itself.
Don’t miss it!
‘Unbelievable’ is now streaming on Netflix.