In 2008, an 18-year-old girl reported being raped at knife-point in her apartment in Lynnwood, WA by a man who had bound her with her own shoelaces. Before leaving, he took pictures of her, and told her he’d publish them online if she told anyone. Nonetheless, she freed herself and called the police to report the rape. But within a matter of days, many in her immediate circle, and the male detectives in charge of the case, started to doubt her story. Under pressure, she retracted the accusation, conceding that it may have been a vivid dream.
In 2009, she was charged with false reporting and accepted a plea deal. In 2011, two female detectives in Colorado caught her rapist.
That true story, told in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project in 2015, and an episode of This American Life, is now the plot of the upcoming Netflix true crime series, Unbelievable.
The trailer, which premiered Wednesday, shows Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever as Marie Adler, a former foster child who’s living on her own in special housing for at-risk youth when she reports being raped by a masked man. Her foster mothers, played by Elizabeth Marvel and Bridget Everett, are supportive at first but soon come to suspect that she may just be seeking attention — until details of a similar case, in Colorado this time, hit the news.
Merritt Weaver and Toni Colette star as Karen DuVall and Grace Rasmussen, two Colorado detectives who — miles away and unaware of Marie’s now-defunct case — join forces when they realize they are pursuing the same man for two separate crimes. Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin’) rounds off the main cast as another victim of the same serial rapist whose case provides crucial insight. Though the names and personal lives of those involved have been changed or fictionalized, the details pertaining to the investigative work and crimes closely follow the real facts of the case.
Showrunner Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovitch) co-wrote the show with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, and all three are executive producers, along with Marie, Sarah Timberman (Elementary, Masters of Sex), Carl Beverly, Richard Tofel, Neil Barsky, Robyn Semien, Katie Couric, and Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon, The Kids Are Alright), who also directed three episodes.
The first episode will premiere on Friday during New York City’s 51Fest, a new film festival dedicated to celebrating women, in a joint initiative by Tina Brown’s Women in the World and IFC Center, and the entire series will stream on Netflix on September 13.
In an interview with Refinery29 ahead of the show’s New York premiere, Grant and Timberman explained that they hope the show helps viewers understand that there is no one way to deal with trauma, and that we as a culture have to own up to our biases when it comes to sexual assault. In particular, they stressed that the show purposefully doesn’t vilify the officers whose mishandling of the case caused Marie to retract her accusation. They are the symptoms of a much larger problem.
“There a couple of things you hear said about the process of reporting a rape. One is that the investigation feels like a second assault. And you also hear that the process of going through the kit also feels like an assault. So, rather than just accept that, we really wanted to break that down and communicate that on a more visceral level, so you can experience why that’s true in an emotional way,” Grant said.
“It’s something you can’t begin to understand unless you’ve gone through it: What it’s like to have your body treated as a crime scene,” Timberman added. “It’s an alienating process, and it can be a traumatizing one in the hands of people who are untrained or insensitive to the work that they’re doing.”
Speaking to Refinery29 over the phone, Cholodenko said that she sought to illustrate just how easily mistakes can be made — not out of villainous intent but out of ignorance: “I wanted to show them in all their complexity: Yeah, they’re assholes, and they’re knuckleheads, but they’re also doing their job, and they’re asking the right questions — we’re tracking with them what is impacting their decisions, even if they’re not great ones.”
According to RAINN, only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults will be reported to the police. Of those, only 46 will result in an arrest. Women are still fighting to be believed, their word challenged at every turn. In that climate, the fact that Unbelievable is helmed by a team mostly comprised of women, is especially noteworthy. Special attention was given to make sure that nothing felt gratuitous.
“I had never written or produced scenes of sexual violence before. And when I first sat down to write them, I knew the usual depiction was not going to work,” Grant said. “Just the act of displaying sexual violence from an objective viewpoint is going to invoke voyeurism. So, I thought, This has to be a completely subjective experience for the viewer.”
As a result, the initial assault is filmed entirely from Marie’s perspective — we only know what she knows — as a blurry, confused series of quick shots and pieced-together recollections. In many ways, the show feels like a distant cousin to HBO’s The Night Of, which also followed an investigation made more complex by trauma and unreliable memories.
“I thought a lot about where to place the camera, and what was the most cinematic and plausible way to get into Marie’s head,” Cholodenko said. “There’s a limitation to what I can show if I’m going outside an objectified experience — I certainly don’t want to make it from his point of view! It was all about how she’s putting her memory together: what she can remember and what she can’t, and what she does psychologically in a moment of trauma. She goes somewhere else in her mind.”
That coping mechanism, combined with the police officers’ lack of comprehension when it comes to procedures in dealing with a sexual assault case, are on full display in the trailer, which highlights the grueling process of reporting a rape, and the suspicion with which victims of assault are treated during an investigation.
"They just kept asking me the same question, 'How come your story doesn't add up?'" Marie says in the trailer. "I just wanted to go home."
“The questioning of sexual assault victims as suspects is an old pattern in law enforcement,” Timberman said. “There’s no telling how someone who is the victim of assault or a violent crime might behave, and to draw wrong conclusions can lead you down a tragic path.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).