Monday, May 04, 2020

Unbelievable (2019)

This Netflix miniseries was not nearly as harrowing as I worried it would be. I'm calling that a good thing. It's all done up in a thoughtful type of slam-bang TV style that kept me glued to it for two days. It might be a little long—five to six hours instead of seven to eight might have toned it up some. Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, The Kids Are All Right) has a producer credit (with Michael Chabon, Katie Couric, and others) and she also directed the first three episodes. Her welcome human touch is felt especially in those early parts, but this one is basically made for outrage. It's also, as a cop story, decidedly post-CSI, so much so that that show is discussed at a few points in this one. Unbelievable is composed of two parallel though out-of-time sequence strands (and naturally based on real-life incidents). One is in the Pacific Northwest circa 2008, and involves Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever, doing much of a 180 from Booksmart, released earlier last year). She's a young woman with a troubled background. The troubles are kept maddeningly vague all the way through but at least we see some examples of her poorer judgment. Then, one night in her apartment, she is raped by a masked intruder. She struggles with the indignities of the forensic exams and police interrogations that follow, recants, goes along with police when they decide she made it up, recants that, recants again. It turns into a real clusterfuck, and gets even worse when the police charge her with filing a false report. Meanwhile, circa 2011 in Colorado, two female detectives are hunting a serial rapist who knows how to play the system from reading police textbooks and watching too much CSI. He's a little super-heroic. He never leaves behind hairs, fluids, DNA, or really any physical evidence, and he strikes Zodiac-style in different police jurisdictions, gambling they won't talk to each other about isolated cases, no matter how bizarre or extreme. It's pure coincidence that brings together the detectives Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette).

By contrast with the Lynnwood police in Washington, Duvall and Rasmussen radiate a flinty swaggering confidence. They are a bit super-heroic themselves, but it's grounded in police procedure and even more in classy measured performances from Wever and Collette. This, I think, is how you do good TV—ensemble style, with good casting (and a hard finish, which is why I still favor miniseries over endless multiple season arcs). Toni Collette seems to be good in everything she does and so she is again here as the hard-bitten cop with a history of dangerous underground work and a taste for adrenaline. Wever is a revelation, perhaps a long time coming for me as I didn't recognize her even though I've seen all four of her "Known For" movies on IMDb: Signs, Marriage Story (which I just saw for crying out loud), Michael Clayton, and fucking Birdman. She almost feels Method in the slow, methodical way she plays her scenes here—the passion of her character is all iced over and focused. There are further interesting points between the two detectives, perhaps a bit cliché but not leaned into too hard. Rasmussen is a mentoring figure for Duvall. Duvall is a Christian and Rasmussen a variation on the madman Vietnam vet and/or biker outlaw figure. Dever (not to be confused with Wever) is good in this too, but her story is where the miniseries felt most flabby and unfocused as it went along. It keeps pinwheeling away as a sideline narrative, starting out as a compelling bad situation but only getting more dismal, and it's never connected with Colorado until nearly the end, even though we know very well how they are connected. As a cross-cutting distraction, her case comes across too often as more monotonously confusing than outrageous, which should not be the way it is for a case that is this outrageous. Altogether Unbelievable is another good one for pandemic viewing. In that way, maybe it's better that it's closer to eight hours than six.

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