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Friday, April 12, 2024

Review: “Unbelievable”

Netflix’s latest true crime documentary goes beyond 

Netflix released a miniseries based on an article written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong about a serial rape case in Washington and Colorado on Sept. 13. The series, titled “Unbelievable,” follows the two female detectives who eventually catch the offender, as well as one of the survivors who was accused by police of falsely reporting the crime. 

Critics raved about the phenomenal performances and storytelling in the series. The docu-series received a score of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.  

Academy Award-winning actor Toni Collette and Meritt Weaver play detectives Rasmussen and Duvall, respectively. In 2011, Duvall investigates a singlular sexual assault incedent that resembles a case Rasmussen is investigating in a different district. Both cases contain similar elements, including a lack of almost any DNA left behind. 

 Under what can only be described as dumb luck, Duvall and Rasmussen learn of each other’s cases and begin working together, searching for an experienced serial rapist. 

Rasmussen and Duvall’s plotline functions as a procedural drama. The incomparable Collette infuses Rasmussen with confidence and passion, making viewers believe her character would be able to solve such an unsolvable case. Weaver’s Duvall is the backbone of the series — the fire that ignites everything else in the plot. Eager and empathetic, Duvall is relentless in her pursuit of finding justice for the survivors. 

These two characters, however, aren’t introduced until the second episode of the eight-part series. The first hour, as well as the emotional core of the story, belongs to Kaitlyn Dever. 

Denver plays Marie Adler, an 18-year-old woman who, in 2008, was raped by the same man Rasmussen and Duvall search for three years later. Unfortunately, the police in Adler’s district find inconsistencies in her story and ultimately charge her with a gross misdemeanor for filing a false report. Adler’s identity is revealed and she becomes a hated figure in the public eye. 

The opening episode of the series occurs mere hours after Adler’s assault, when she first files a report.

This episode is powerful, yet understated. Unlike other shows that abuse graphic content for elements of shock, the painful event Adler experiences is never overtly shown. The real horror comes from the aftermaths of sexual assault, especially on the clinical and bureaucratic end.

Viewers watch as Adler, in shock from trauma, is forced to recount her story over and over again as she is questioned by different detectives and doctors. When she is taken to the hospital, viewers see her poked and prodded by nurses, then photographed from all angles by investigators. It’s hard not to feel like she is being violated all over again. 

Denver is brilliant in this role. She is sympathetic, yet deeply complex. Adler’s anger and confusion builds throughout the series, and Denver portrays this remarkably. 

After the first episode, the series follows these two parallel timelines: the one in 2011 when Rasmussen and Duvall start gaining traction in their investigations and Adler’s as she struggles to cope with what has happened to her. As the two detectives keep getting closer to finding the offender, Adler’s life continues to fall apart. This builds up suspense, as viewers await desperately not only for the rapist to punished but for Adler’s truth to finally be revealed. 

In a previous article, I wrote about the questionable morality of true crime documentaries, and how they tend to glamorize the offenders and their heinous crimes. 

“Unbelievable” is different. There are no explicit or graphic scenes of the crimes — Adler’s assault is only shown through momentary flashes or brief clips of audio. The offender, portrayed by Blake Ellis, does not appear on screen until the seventh episode. This is not the story of a rapist and an exploration of his most brutal crimes. Instead, “Unbelievable” focuses on the hard work of women in law enforcement and the empowerment of survivors. 

Beyond the tremendous performances by the leads, the series has a powerful message about the corruption of the criminal justice system, especially when it comes to women. Unlike other crime documentaries, there is no minimization of the survivors or what they went through in this story. 

In the last episode, after it is revealed that Adler was telling the truth all along, she decides to sue the city for the injustice bestowed upon her. Her lawyer empathizes with what she experienced. 

“No one ever accuses a robbery victim of lying, or someone who says he was carjacked,” the lawyer tells Adler. “Doesn’t happen. But when it comes to sexual assault…”  

This true story is shocking and deeply horrifying, but ultimately comes to a happy ending. The real offender is still in prison today, having been sentenced to 327.5 years. The two detectives have been honored for their incredible work, have remained friends and often speak to panels about their work and the case. The real-life Marie Adler won $150,000 in the lawsuit against the city and is married with children. 

Written By: Alyssa Ilsley — arts@theaggie.org



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