Netflix’s Unbelievable is a true crime drama with empathy for victims

The drama asks sensitive questions about bias, the myth of the “perfect victim”, and who suffers at the hands of broken systems.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Eighteen-year-old Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) has spent hours telling the same story to detectives, doctors and counsellors. Early that morning, at home in Lynnwood, Washington, she was woken by an intruder, tied up and raped at knifepoint. She impassively recounts the ordeal four times out loud, and once in writing – only reluctantly going into specifics when pushed. Her body is pored over in similar detail: examined, photographed, swabbed. A nurse casually gives her a number to ring in case of “trouble swallowing, hives, thoughts of killing yourself”.

 There is no physical evidence to be found on Marie’s body or in her flat. Brusque but concerned male detectives suddenly become less understanding. They question Marie’s strange reaction to her attack, and raise eyebrows at her difficult childhood. They don’t believe her. They encourage her to admit the rape was a fabrication. But in Colorado, a polite young woman has an almost identical story – with a very different aftermath. The patient, empathetic female detective attached to Amber’s case discovers strikingly similar stories with no physical evidence. She believes her.

Netflix’s Unbelievable is based on a 2015 Pulitzer-winning piece of long-form journalism, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”. This is a faithful adaptation that plainly lays out the victims’ stories and lets the audience see for themselves how differently they were treated, down to every question. The methodical pacing gives way to a more conventional momentum with the entrance of Toni Collette as Detective Grace Rasmussen, but Unbelievable is gripping without becoming sensational, asking sensitive questions about bias, the myth of the “perfect victim”, and who suffers at the hands of broken systems. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control