There’s a scene in Netflix’s Unbelievable, based on a real case, where Detective Grace Rasmussen (Oscar nominee Toni Collette) is running in the woods, accompanied by her two dogs. The pair joyfully bound ahead of her, before taking off down a steep bank and out of sight. When Grace reaches them, she discovers a gruesome, incongruous scene: the pet dogs are tearing at the delicate carcass of a faun. Grace mutters curses, but unlike the viewer, she’s wholly unsurprised.
Grace’s world-weary cynicism extends towards her fellow colleagues. She is that rare thing: a police officer who is as mistrustful of police officers as modern viewers have now learnt to be, following a glut of incriminatory shows and documentaries about the American justice system (When They See Us, Making a Murderer). In the face of a series of ‘unbelievable’ police mistakes that facilitated a serial rapist, Grace’s cynicism is justified.
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Marie (played with heartbreaking fragility by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) is a young woman in Lynnwood, Washington whose rape allegation is deemed unbelievable by two male police detectives. They’re suspicious of her inconsistent statement and of her guarded, almost bored manner of recounting it; of her troubled upbringing; of the teenager’s past tendency to “act up” for attention, as revealed by one of her previous foster mothers. Bringing her into the police station, the two detectives rip apart Marie’s testimony in the same unthinking way Grace’s dogs later maul at the faun carcass.
In flashbacks, we learn how Marie’s life unravels following the police investigation, while the main narrative jumps forward a few years to another rape case.
Dumplin’s Danielle Macdonald plays the second rape victim, a college student, and the way her allegation is handled is starkly contrasted to the treatment Marie endured. Merritt Wever, Unbelievable’s standout star, plays Colorado detective Karen Duvall, the empathetic and thorough (if a little green) lead investigator who spots a pattern of similar rape cases, and later teams up with Grace to catch a potential serial rapist.
It’s a difficult watch, but never gruelling, and never sexualised. In one scene where Karen and Grace look through photographs of victims mid-rape, the camera remains on the two detectives’ faces almost entirely throughout. Of the cache of photographs they trawl through, just three non-explicit images appear on-screen for a blurred, split-second each. For viewers well-used to the graphic rape scenes ubiquitous in film and television, Netflix’s approach will come as relief.
Karen and Grace’s reactions to the photos reveal all we need to know of the horror and suffering captured on-camera— while making the series’ real-life, unbelievable premise all the more enraging.
Unbelievable will be available to stream on Netflix on 13th September 2019