Netflix's Unbelievable Turns True Crime Story into Fascinating Character Drama

A police procedural about rape cases that focuses on details without getting tedious


Unbelievable. Available now on Netflix.

The teenager has just been raped—for hours—but now it seems her ordeal is only beginning, at the hands of the policemen she called to report the crime.

Tell your story to a cop. Tell it to another cop. Stand naked on the floor for a set of photos, then again for a second set from behind. Pee in a cup. (Are you bonkers on meth?) Have your mouth swabbed several times to collect DNA, then your arms jabbed with needles to give up multiple vials of blood. And repeat the story you already told twice to the cops, this time to the ER nurse, who is compiling her own bulky case file.

More: Twelve swabs from your crotch. Something unseen but unpleasant with a speculum. Genital dye. A handful of pills for STDs, another in case you were in impregnated. Now, tell it all again to a third cop, and then put it down on paper in your own handwriting.

Netflix's true-crime drama Unbelievable is many things: a noir crime drama; a character study of battered, and battering, women; a thoughtful examination of rape laws and how they're enforced, or not; a turn-the-tables twitting of fair-weather civil libertarians. (So this guy maybe raped half a dozen women: Do we really need to mess around with subpoenas for the confidential HR files from his workplace? Couldn't we just steal them instead? It's so much quicker.)

But at its heart it's a police procedural, like a CSI or Law & Order on steroids or perhaps the secret version of Dick Tracy's Crimestoppers Textbook, a glimpse into the way sexual-battery investigations really work.

This includes: that dismal checklist for rape victims (For rape suspects, add in plucking—roots and all—of pubic hair); cops slogging through hours of surveillance tape of traffic passing a crime scene, then days more trying to match a particular vehicle with a broken mirror to thousands of repair-shop reports; and shuffling through thousands of witness statements and military records and crime-scene forensics in hopes of finding a matched circumstance; the endless fruitless interviews with scum who nonetheless aren't guilty—"an asshole, just not our asshole" as one disgruntled cop puts it.

If that sounds tedious, it isn't. Unbelievable, the rare crime drama with no bang-bang and scarcely any on-screen violence of any kind (even the rapes, seen only from the eyes of blindfolded, trussed-up victims, are confused and fragmentary), is still a relentlessly compelling binge-watch event.

Part of the show's overpowering fascination is the freaky circumstances of the case: a mildly flaky young girl reports a rape, recants, recants her recantation and winds up charged with making a false statement to police. And all the while the rapist—who is very real indeed—is continuing his grim work.

But Unbelievable also features an exceptional array of talent, starting with writer-creator Susannah Grant, whose previous credits include Erin Brockovich and The 5th Wave.  Her main story, skillfully interwoven with red herrings and dead ends, skips nimbly through two timelines without ever losing track of itself.

Her scripts are executed by three remarkable actresses. The most surprising is Kaitlyn Dever, known mostly for her role as the spunky (the word's gruesome connotations are fully intended and embraced) youngest daughter on the hacky Fox sitcom Last Man Standing.

That role couldn't be more different than the one she plays masterfully in Unbelievable, that of a wan 18-year-old rape victim named Marie, who has spent a lifetime fighting her way through rocky foster homes and has the physical and emotional scars to prove it. "I don't need help," she implores. "I just need bad things to stop happening."

Raped alone in her apartment by an assailant who tied her up to prevent any struggle, then left a crime scene remarkably free of physical evidence, Marie's reaction is oddly detached and even at times spacey.

Some details of her account are contradictory—in one version, she dialed her cell phone with her toes to call for help, but in another, she used her hands. The police aren't the only ones skeptical. One ex-foster mother calls the lead detective on the case to warn him Marie is an attention-seeker, and a former foster dad with whom she was on good terms refuses to be alone with her for fear of a phony cry of rape.

Marie's response is one she has perfected in a lifetime of giving way to adult aggressors—to give them what she thinks they want. "Do you know how many situations I have been in where grownups want something messed up from me that I don't want to give them?" she asks a friend. "And they want me to say something that I don't want to say or do something I don't want to do? A lot."

Marie tries to placate the cops with a (false) admission that she made it all up, even though she knows it will end any hope that her rapist is punished and will probably endanger other women. What she doesn't anticipate is that it will result in criminal charges—against her, for filing a false crime report.

As Marie's story unfolds, so does that of two women cops 1,300 miles away and two years in the future. Working on separate rape cases for different police departments in different suburbs of Denver, detectives Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense) and Karen DuValle (Merritt Wever, The Walking Dead) bump into each other and realize they're chasing the same guy.

Meticulously neat, he binds and blindfolds his victims, snaps their pictures with a pink camera and makes them bathe when he finishes to eliminate any left-behind DNA. Each of his assaults takes place in a different suburb so the various small police departments will never realize they've got a serial rapist on their hands. Rasmussen and DuValle forge together a suburban law enforcement task force to pursue their man, but even so, they don't dare whisper their darkest mutual suspicion: that he's a cop, whose knowledge of police procedure makes him almost invulnerable.

Collette's ability to inhabit a role has been visible for years, most strikingly in Showtime's United States of Tara, in which her multiple-personality suburban housewife character could instantly flash from a sex kitten to a redneck truck driver. But audiences are just beginning to catch on to Wever, whose role as a dedicated but loopy young apprentice nurse in another little-seen Showtime drama, Nurse Jackie, brought light interludes to what was otherwise a bleak study of psychological decay

They're both excellent here as empathetic but obsessive detectives whose mental strings are tugged to the snapping point by an investigation that piles up evidence but yields no suspects. They pull guns on men guilty of nothing but driving the wrong make and model car, and they conduct lurid phone conversations with other cops from their family dinner tables. Is it any wonder that they can even spot psychosexual clues in old Star Wars movies? If only The Force were with them.