Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and rape.
In December 2015, ProPublica and The Marshall Project published “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” an in-depth piece focusing on the survivors of a serial rapist and a police investigation that took place in 2011. The story begins with an 18-year-old girl who, for the purposes of the piece and a later “This American Life” podcast episode, goes by her middle name Marie. She told police in 2008 that she was raped, and then, with pressure and confusion, told them she made the story up. It wasn’t until long after that she received some sort of name clearing and closure, if that can even fully exist after horror and trauma.
Now, Netflix’s “Unbelievable” (2019) adapts that story — names are changed, although locations and some details remain the same — into a limited series that explores both the aftermath of the attack on Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) in Washington as well as the two detectives in Colorado who spearhead the hunt. Last Thursday, a roundtable of journalists sat down with Susannah Grant, a co-creator, executive producer, director and writer for “Unbelievable,” to talk about the background of the series and the importance of telling this particular story today.
“I read the article that it is based on,” Grant said in a conference room at the Boston Harbor Hotel. “And I thought, at least for me, it was a new perspective on the issue of sexual assault, looking specifically at the investigative process both from the point of view of the victims of sexual assault, and from the point of view of a couple of really great investigators and what it takes to do that job as well as they did.”
For Grant, “Unbelievable” takes the social issue and makes it intensely personal — the story of Marie is especially harrowing and sickening. It becomes clear throughout the series that there are visible differences between how Marie’s case is handled when compared to other victims. The two detectives in Colorado, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), are more experienced in understanding trauma.
“The detectives that Toni and Merritt’s characters are based on had both had a lot of experience with sexual assault,” Grant said, “and they understood how trauma effects the memory of an assault victim and what it does to the way they can tell a narrative.”
The viewers of “Unbelievable” experience this broken narrative in the first episode of the series, as Marie remembers her attack in bits and pieces. These flashbacks are terrifying, as the viewer is put in the perspective of Marie, one eye peeking out of a blindfold, watching her attacker.
“It was a very deliberate choice right from the get-go to make the experience really a subjective one. I didn’t see how we could portray that in a way that didn’t feel voyeuristic unless we were inside her experience,” Grant said.
She also notes that since the story relies on the questioning and doubt of Marie’s truthfulness, it was necessary to see these flashbacks from her view. It’s notable that throughout all of Marie’s story in “Unbelievable” — from moments right after the attack to working different jobs months and years later — Dever’s performance makes everything feel lived in, natural and raw. It’s inarguably one of the best performances of the year, and Grant mentioned the authentic effectiveness of the cast as a whole.
“Merritt and Toni are just staggeringly good actors who embody something so fully and with such complexity and manage to find things in every moment that sometimes you had no idea were there, having written it,” she said.
And for Dever, Grant heaped nothing but praise.
“One of the things I love most about her character is that she can really embody the full impact of this horrible trauma this young woman is going through and still never lose that little feeling of hope that it’s all going to turn out better. In every scene, she’s both simultaneously drowning and staying afloat.”
Dever’s performance in “Unbelievable” comes a few months after “Booksmart” (2019), Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut. Grant noted that Dever told her she was in her last week of shooting “Booksmart” when she came into audition.
“It’s not just that she has range over the course of a year, she has that range in the course of a day,” Grant said.
And Dever isn’t the only person showing range in “Unbelievable” — Grant herself occupied many roles, including showrunner, throughout production and commented that it was quite busy. Grant joked about letting her family know she’d see them in a couple of months.
“It’s busy, but it’s good busy,” she said.
As for the aftermath of “Unbelievable,” Grant hopes there is an “active and engaged” conversation around the series and sexual assault.
“There’s a shame associated with it, and if there can be some conversation that takes the shame off it and brings people out of the shadows, that’d be great.”
“Unbelievable” is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.